As I get to putting my thoughts together on my belated 9/11 post (I’m trying to figure out a way of phrasing what I want to say that will minimize the rotten tomatoes hurled in my direction), I wanted to share an observation before it slips into the ether.
The other day I was substituting at an elementary school (I’ll call it “Creston”). I commented to a paraprofessional that at least at a school like Creston (by which I meant a “good school”), when I tell the kids to shut their yaps, they put forth an effort at doing so (often very temporary – it turns out 20 kids in a room are very excitable). I made an unfavorable comparison with a couple other schools I have taught at (“Pitts” and “Clark”). The para nodded knowingly, talking about how awful it must be at Clark in particular.
The district (“Redstone”) I sub at is some 95% white and if the students at Clark and Pitts have a darker skin tone, it’s not immediately apparent. The thought later occurred to me that if this were not the case, my statement could be relatively easily construed as racist. I’d commented to my wife that if we ever moved to Redstone, we would situate ourselves so that our kids go to this school (Creston) or that school (“Rushmore”) and not this other school (Pitts) or that other school (Clark). Of course, in a context where race is involved, this mentality can be criticized as “fear of the minorities”. But fortunately, since we’re dealing with a district that is entirely white, this outlook is merely classist or elitist and not racist.
Race influences our dialogue any number of ways. Not just race, but any distinguishable “other,” and little is more immediately distinguishable than race. In the context of schools, some people say “good schools” when they really mean “schools full of people that look and act like I do.” But then others assume that when people talk about good schools and low crime, they’re really expressing a coded disdain for minorities. And since we can’t read minds, we never really know which is which. Often, the speaker themselves may not fully know.
And when we talk about segregation, and integration, we often downplay an often innate desire to be around people that are much like ourselves. I don’t mean race in particular, though again it’s the most immediately distinguishable trait. My wife and I are white and we live in a town that is 95% white and a town where degree-holders outpace the national average. Yet we are nonetheless culturally isolated here due to a lot of factors that take longer to distinguish than race or even class. A couple of moves back, we lived in a primarily black neighborhood where, again, we didn’t exactly fit in. Yet saying that we wanted to move out of that neighborhood, and saying that we want to leave where we are currently, have completely different connotations. And perhaps, to some extent, they should. Both where I live now and where I lived a few moves back had some pent-up animosity towards outsiders California transplants (the white yuppie sort). These views were expressed in ways that, if directed at Hispanics, would be considered racist. And perhaps, to some extent, they should. I say in both cases that “perhaps… they should” because such observations and distinctions between “my/their kind” and “insider/outsider” are more likely to be noticed and catalogued when dealing with more immediately distinguishable traits.
One of the costs of multiculturalism is the need (according to some) to watch what you say more closely. Some people respond by doing just that, in the process, making some observations very difficult to articulate. Others respond with resentment and just say what’s on their mind, predicated with “I’m not a racist but…” or “I guess I’m not politically correct, but I have to say…” or something to that effect. I fall more into the former category, as I am a man that measures words by my nature. But I actually understand the latter. I alternate between the self-evident need to not be rude to wide segments of the population and seeing how this perspective can actually create resentment by not allowing some views to be aired (and seeing that resentment exploited).
To pick an example, when we talk about the need for a “real immigration policy,” we can’t have a real immigration policy without a real discussion. And we can’t have a real discussion when the vast majority of ways one side expresses itself is dismissed as racist.