Or “Wherein Sricki Fesses to a Shameful Level of Ignorance.”
Whatever title works for you. I’m good with either.
We’ve been talking a lot about race on the blogs lately. I freely admitted in a comment the other night that I totally don’t “get it” when it comes to understanding racism and oppression. But there’s so much I don’t get, and the more I learn, the more clueless and out of touch I feel. Am I about to embarrass myself trying to talk about race? Maybe, but I can’t say that my personal sense of humiliation and shame about all this makes it any less true or noteworthy.
First, a little background for those of you who don’t know much about me. I’m a Southerner, born and bred. Lived in Alabama near my entire life. My family is a den of Republicans, but my parents are highly educated. My mom has 4 degrees, my father 3. I have a Southern accent, sure, but no one would call me a “hick” or a “hillbilly.” I’ve had native Southerners ask where I’m from because my accent isn’t near as thick as you might expect for a lifelong Alabamian. Oh, the Northerners always know I’m from down here, but sometimes the folks in these parts think I talk mighty proper.
I’m white. Mostly German, British, and Irish decent, I think. Sure, I was born with white privilege, but I was given a lot of other privileges that most white people never dream of. Before I entered school, my parents did a lot of research. My mom is a public school teacher, and she was always breaking up fights. She and my maternal grandfather decided that the public school system wasn’t safe enough for me, so my parents threw everything financially into putting me through private education, even though they didn’t really have the money on their own. My privileged education was paid for by my parents along with the help of both sets of grandparents. I was enrolled in a private school well before I was old enough to attend it. I had to pass a test to get in. My parents changed neighborhoods when I was 2 to provide a “safer environment” and again when I was 8 for similar reasons.
I was surrounded by privilege – mine and that of others – my entire childhood. Despite all my opportunities, I thought I comparatively had it pretty rough because all my friends’ parents had more money than mine. Poor pitiful sricki runnin’ back and forth through sprinklers in the backyard while all her rich friends were swimming in their pools. Sure, my backyard also had a nice swing set and a treehouse, but that didn’t mean anything because my poor dad had to build that treehouse by hand. And my buddies always had the newest video games long before I did. Yeah, rough life I led.
There was never a question in my mind (or my family’s) of whether I would go to college. I never even considered staying in state. I was an “A” student, though I slacked in math pretty badly and neglected my homework often enough to get C’s at times. Didn’t matter on my GPA though, because I took AP classes in high school, which were weighted. My A’s in 4-5 AP classes always outweighed that C in math. I had a 4.2 GPA my senior year, despite that C. I scored high enough on several college board exams to have over a full semester of college finished before I graduated high school. I had plenty of volunteer work under my belt and some great extracurriculars to slap on my resume. I went off to a top tier liberal arts school on scholarship when I was 18.
I can honestly say that up until that point I’d lived in the proverbial “ivory tower.” Completely sheltered from reality, and my college would have gladly kept me that way – but I did some “acting out,” and spent some time running with people who didn’t attend my school (what my parents called “the wrong crowd”). I got into trouble, and I ended up having to leave that school due to misbehavior and skipping class, but when it comes down to it… no, I don’t regret my time with those “wrong crowds.” Until I interacted with them, I truly thought that a person’s worth was measured by her level of education and academic/professional accomplishment. But I met some of the smartest, street savviest people I’ve ever known during my times with the wrong crowd. Without those experiences, who knows when I would have learned that education and privilege in no way dictate an individual’s worth. Sure, I had volunteered at soup kitchens and with underprivileged kids before, but those people had still always seemed totally separate from me. Not relevant to my life. It was being friends with people who’d been brought up in the “real world” that taught me the inherent worth of all human beings.
Flash forward a few years. I’m 26 now, and I have 2 degrees under my belt so far. I’ve been through a lot, particularly during my ongoing struggles with mental illness and the personal tragedies it caused. I’m working with a counseling agency that serves primarily kids. My oldest client is 19, my youngest is 5. These are underprivileged kids, for sure, and most have been abused. Medicaid pays us for our services. I’m not working with kids who have Blue Cross through mom and dad. I work in the clients’ homes most of the time, and the first case I went on was a real eye-opener. It was like stepping into another country. The home is tiny, dirty, and falling apart. They can’t afford AC, so as you can imagine… it is hot as hell in that house in the middle of Alabama during the summer months. And the home is chaos – yelling dad, screaming ADHD kids, barking dogs. The first call I made on that first day on the job was to my mom. She asked how it went, and I told her I felt like I’d just stepped out of a hurricane. The silence outside the home when I left was deafening.
So I’m working with some kids in bad situations. Most of them aren’t in their parents’ custody, for one reason or another. Some in relatives’ homes, some in foster care. And they’ve all dug their way into my head and into my heart. First month of work in particular, I couldn’t get them out of my mind. I’d sit up late at night thinking about their cases and their lives, sobbing and crying in front of loved ones.
One thing of note, though: I’ve been sent into some really rural locations all around this area, and one thing all my clients have in common is that they, too, are white. Still, all things considered, I felt like I was doing a pretty good job relating to kids who’ve experienced a whole different slice of life than the one I am accustomed to.
I’m trying to increase my caseload and cut down on long distance driving, so my boss is trying to set me up to work in a school with “problem kids” during the day. She asked me to meet her and another counselor at a middle school this morning, to get a feel for it and see whether I’d like to work there and help the regular counselor out.
It was a pretty strange, humbling, disorienting experience for me. I walked in the school around 8:45 AM, and I didn’t see another white person until I left and met my regular afternoon appointment in her home at 4:00. I walked in smiling because I love schools. I remember my K-12 days pretty fondly now, looking back. Kids were already in class, so the halls were quiet. I signed in with the main office and was directed to the counselor’s office. I sat chatting with my boss, a coworker, and the regular school counselor for a few minutes. I was told that we would be working with several groups of kids throughout the day. All had been in trouble – most suspended at least once – and were being taken out of PE a couple days a week to work on “anger management” issues. That’s cool, I work on anger issues with several of my clients who have problems controlling their impulses. My boss leaves to attend to other clients, but I’ve still got two other counselors with me. So I was feeling pretty okay and pretty comfortable with the situation all around.
Then the first group of kids was brought in.
I’m all bright-eyed
and bushytailed saying hi and introducing myself (as is my nature – believe it or not – when dealing with clients). First thing I notice is that near every kid does something very near a double-take when they see me sitting at the table. I’ll admit I stood out in that school like a sore thumb. Next thing I notice is that the kids mumble a lot. They mumbled at pretty much everyone, but they mumbled a lot lower when talking to me. Most of them also didn’t want to look me in the face, and no matter who posed a question – the other counselors or myself – I was the last person in the room they wanted to look at when giving an answer. Sometimes, while one child was talking, I would catch the other kids just sorta… looking at me. Until today, I’ve always felt like I did a really good job of getting down on my clients’ level, but today I started noticing communication barriers immediately. I felt my nerve slipping a bit when the kids didn’t connect with me or respond as I am accustomed, and I started to wonder what I was doing wrong. I went quiet for a while as I watched my fellow counselors, both African American, interacting with the kids. Maybe I was looking to emulate what they were doing.
It was quickly apparent to me, though, that I couldn’t. These are professional, intelligent women who were trained in essentially the same way I was. It’s not like they were saying words I couldn’t comprehend, or introducing concepts I hadn’t heard. And they weren’t talking in some sort of “inner city” lingo that my preppy, privileged self I didn’t know. And yet, it was still like they were speaking another language. They were speaking from a position of real understanding and shared experience. Speaking with a assertiveness and a sense of control, confidence, and self-efficacy that I couldn’t seem to match in the situation. Speaking with an authority that resonated with the kids even when these children were denying having done anything wrong. These counselors were on those kids’ level and showed a kind of street smart attitude and comprehension that is still pretty foreign to me. They didn’t handle the children with “kid gloves,” and they didn’t allow excuses. And they managed to come across as authoritative and friendly at the same time.
These groups came in and out all day. The whole time I felt like an “outsider” who didn’t belong. None of the kids were rude to me, but there was an indefinable feeling of distance all the same, even when they were seated right beside me. By the afternoon, I’d come to understand that I couldn’t look to copy my coworkers. Coming from me, that kind of talk and behavior would have been inauthentic, and kids know when you’re not being genuine. I fell into a rhythm where one of the first things I did with each child was make him/her laugh (that’s a policy of mine in general – I don’t leave a client’s home until I’ve made him/her laugh at least once). Way I see it, laugher is the universal language, and it’s hard to feel cold toward someone when you’re laughing with them. Most of the kids seemed more comfortable with me once I’d cracked ’em up, but I never got over that feeling of being “on the outside” looking in at something I couldn’t really understand or be a part of.
The school day ended, I thanked the other counselors, and headed off to my regular appointment. Once that was through and my workday was finished, I set to reflecting on my day.
I’ve said all of this, and now I come down to the point I want to make… and I’m not wholly sure how to make it or even what it really is. Tomorrow my boss will want to know how my day went and whether I’d like to work with some of those kids one-on-one. And as I think on it, here I am asking myself… what right do I have? What right do I have – with all of my privilege, all of my opportunities, and all of my vastly divergent experiences – to tell a little black boy that he did wrong to beat up a kid who hit his little sister? These kids’ parents aren’t used to having it easy in life. They aren’t used to having people on their side. They live in the real world – a world where you defend yourself and protect yourself and your family because you can’t count on anybody else to do it for you. Their own parents have taught them, “If someone hits you, you hit back and protect yourself.” Who am I – white private school brat that I am – to tell them to turn the other cheek? To disobey mom or dad? To go “snitch” to the teacher?
Who am I?
What right have I to tell these kids what is right and moral and good and proper? When it comes down to it, their reality is not one that I understand. I don’t know what it’s like to have a gang come after me in my own neighborhood. How do I tell these kids to make a “better choice” in the heat of the moment? And when they’ve got a bunch of bigger kids bullying them… what is the better choice? Any one of the kids I saw today could have said, “What do you know about it?” All I could have answered would have been, “I don’t – you have to tell me.”
One quote that’s always stuck in my head comes from Martin Luther King, Jr.
We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America.
That may have been true then – maybe it’s true now. But the reality today – and it’s one that I think, until this morning, I “knew” without knowing – is that segregation is still bad… just about everywhere. I “knew” that of course. Knew about segregation by race and by class in this country. But I don’t think it occurred to me that I couldn’t get past that. It horrifies me to think that I’ve been trained in this field for years, but that I’m still clueless about how to step into these kids’ world. Sadder still, is that there is “another world” out there that has to be stepped into.
So what is the right thing for me to do, really? I don’t know whether I can help these kids, and with me, that’s what matters most. Yes, I get a paycheck, but I go well above and beyond for the clients I have who need the most help. It’s about them. Sure, I could bulk up my paycheck by agreeing to see these children in the school. Even if they just glare at me for 45 minutes each, I’ll get paid. But what right do I have to take up their time – and the money provided by Medicaid for their treatment – if I can’t really help them?
I don’t know whether I’m capable of helping – and what’s more, I don’t know whether they’d let me help them even if I really knew how. And how on earth could I blame a single one of them? I don’t look or sound a thing like the people who have taken care of them all their lives. Why should they let me in?
So I don’t know what to do. My guess is, at this point, I will tell my boss I’m more comfortable working with younger kids (which is true because most of my clients are elementary-aged). And our ethical guidelines for this profession very clearly state that we are not supposed to work outside our areas of competency. But what does it say about me – and my life – and my education… that African American students living in an underprivileged part of town are completely “outside my competency”? What does it say about me… and what does it say about America today?
I guess to build competency I need to seek out volunteer opportunities that enable me to reach kids who’ve lived a different kind of life than I’ve seen.
What’s weighing on my mind right now… more even than my own lack of competence and understanding… is wondering what those kids’ futures will hold. They don’t have the opportunities I had – and it’s because their parents didn’t have the opportunities my parents had. Or their grandparents. Or great grandparents. Because this country has been stepping all over their families for generations. Where does that end? Where does someone step in and do something? Is there a role for someone like me, who doesn’t understand what these kids go through day by day and can’t personally relate? And I know life’s not fair. I can acknowledge that, but I don’t have to like it. And how fair is it that these kids will gr
ow up and go out into the world to compete with kids who had so many more privileges and opportunities? It’s not just unfair – it’s unjust… and indecent… and shameful.
Glanced at the Moose when I came home tonight and read Denise’s diaries back to back. I always admire her work, but maybe today I read it from a different perspective. I still don’t “get it” or “understand,” no. But maybe Denise’s passion for staying so very involved with the African American community makes more sense to me now. After the day I spent at school today, this paragraph from her diary really struck me:
I will continue to organize in “the black communities” I have been in since birth. No matter my social class, no matter my multi-ethnic ties. As long as black folks are oppressed in this country for being black, we aren’t “post” anything, and I’ll point my black finger at anyone – black or other, who gets in the way of that struggle.
The kids I saw today who are struggling in school – and in life… are struggling for just that reason. Because of lack of opportunity – in their personal lives, and in their parents’, grandparents’, great-grandparents’, great-great grandparents’ personal lives. Because they were – are – black. Life didn’t hand them privileges or resources or opportunities like it did me. I don’t care how much trouble the kids I saw today have gotten into. I didn’t see a single “bad kid.” I didn’t see a single kid I was “better than” when I was his/her age. I saw a bunch of kids trying to make do with a difficult situation, and doing the best they know to do. Some of them are on the wrong path, and the things they’re doing now that get them suspended or scolded at this age… will not be looked upon so leniently in the next 5-10 years.
But I come back to the question – and in fact I pose it to moose of all backgrounds, upbringings, and creeds: Do I have the right, with my set of past experiences, to walk back into that school on a regular basis and tell those kids how to run their lives?
And realistically, what is the likelihood – even after I try to learn and understand their lives better – that I can step into their world? That they would let me step into their world?
Step into their world – and help make it better?
So I’ve been mulling over all this for over 24 hours now. I didn’t get a chance to talk to my boss today, but I have finally made a decision. I want to thank everyone who commented in the thread — you all had good things to say, and the support has been heartening. One thing which might be noticeable to any longtime moose is the conspicuous absence of a Kysen comment, since we have a pretty longstanding habit of yakkin’ at each other on the blogs. Kysen’s my good buddy of over three years though, and in fact… he has a unique perspective on me and my work since he probably hears more about it than anybody else online. So he put in his two cents too, and in the end, he and I were pretty much on the same page.
The conflict I kept coming back to in my mind which made the decision so difficult was this: I’m not competent enough to help these kids yet that I feel comfortable being paid to work with them, but if I don’t work with them I will never be competent enough to help them.
I’ve discussed the situation with loved ones today, and I think I’ve arrived at a fair enough compromise. If I don’t step outside my comfort zone and learn how to connect with these kids, I’ll forever be impotent to help people with backgrounds which differ widely from my own. What a waste my education and training would be then. But the code of ethics for my field is quite clear that I should not take clients I am not competent to work with. A paradox? Maybe not.
My caseload is not full, so I have some free hours during the day certain days of the week. I also get a lot of financial help from a loved one who is intimately familiar with my work situation. I cannot, in good conscience, take on these kids as “my” clients and get paid to work with them. What I can do, however, is offer my services for free in my spare time. I can see these kids on a pro bono basis and go to the school at least one day a week to run these groups all day. The regular counselor at the school is swamped and needs help, so I can take some of the burden off of her, while gaining great professional experience for myself. Hopefully I can help the kids too, but at least if I fail I won’t have to deal with the guilt of being paid for it.
Everyone I have personally discussed the idea with has agreed that this is the best course to take. It satisfies my desire to gain competency and try to get to know and help these kids, while also preventing me from violating ethical guidelines or my personal moral code.
I already know the kids will teach me a lot about life. I have no doubt of that. Here’s hoping that I can give them something worthwhile in return.
Thanks again for all the feedback, guys. I couldn’t have hoped for a better set of responses.