As a young white woman from the suburbs, I knew I was going to experience some culture shock as I began my teaching career in one of the more violent low-income areas of Oakland. The town I grew up in was different from where I went to college, but they had important qualities in common. Both were strongly middle class, had a clear agricultural focus, a vast white majority and a significant but well-hidden Spanish-speaking minority. I hadn’t realized how comfortable I was in those environments until I was faced with the reality of inner-city Oakland.
So I had a lot to learn.
One of many confusing experiences took place early on in the school year. Alvin informed me that he had “stood up” for me at recess because, “Some kids was talking bad about you. They was saying you was white.” He explained how he indignantly informed them that I was not white, but black, just like him. He reassured me, “You’s black. You’s just light-skinded.” I paused and told him that I was, in fact, white, and that those kids were correct. He looked at me in disbelief and said slowly, “I’m a have to think about this…” He never said another word about it—to me anyway.
After I recovered, my first thought was that this would be quite a story for my friends. To give you a mental picture, I am on the pale side of white. Red hair and freckles run in my family. But similar conversations with other students gradually opened my eyes to what was going on. Oakland and its school district are both still very segregated. Although the city has many diverse neighborhoods, the “flatlands” are what most people imagine when they think of Oakland. This area, primarily black and Latino, is known for violence and crime. Most of my students never had a white classmate, nor had their parents. While there were always a handful of white teachers at the school, few stayed long. None lived in the community.
On another occasion, a girl in my class informed me that there were “three kinds of kids: black, Chinese, and Mexican.” I asked her about white kids and she said, “Silly, ain’t no white kids! Just white teachers!” White people lived in the hills or on TV and had very little to do with these kids. As strange as it was to me, it made more sense for my kids to believe that I was not white than it did to believe that a white person really loved them.
Before moving I moved to Oakland, I had never given much thought to racism or race relations. I hadn’t had to. Now I was realizing that not only did racism and segregation still exist, these issues were far more complicated and entrenched than I had ever imagined. These two conversations were a brief introduction to what would become a greater awareness—one that changed how I live my life. Working in an environment that was unfamiliar, almost foreign, to me was exhausting and frightening, and nothing in my training had prepared me for it. At the same time, I learned an enormous amount about similarities and differences among people. I am now someone who can grow with the help of that knowledge.
Harris is an elementary school teacher, tutor and volunteer in California.
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