I’m becoming an Ethnic Minority Mental Health Specialist. Because as a 30-year-old white male from the suburbs of Utah, there’s nothing I understand more acutely than marginalization.
No, but seriously, I’m actively working towards obtaining this specialization because I feel passionate about it. And for it, I had to attend a training yesterday. Now, one of my very first humor posts was this post about a mental health training I had been to that seriously almost made me kill myself it was so excruciating. Thankfully, yesterday’s was actually really awesome and didn’t make me yearn for a javelin to the stomach so I could welcome the distraction of stomach acid slowly eating away at my internal organs until I died. Quite the opposite, the workshop was presented by a sassy, funny mixed-race lady who knew her stuff, and it was really engaging.
One of the things that made her so good was that she was very real about some of her awkward race/gender prejudices, and instances when they showed up. Like how she automatically gets disappointed when a woman instead of a man answers an IT call because her internal prejudice is that men will be better equipped to help her. Or when she recently was in a Mexican restaurant and needed service, and automatically asked a Latino guy if he worked there even though he was dressed in a suit and tie. (The bottom line of the research behind her philosophy if you care is that we ALL have prejudice, and being culturally sensitive is all about how we react to our own prejudices and not about being “color blind,” which is A. impossible and B. doesn’t take into account minor details like, hey, some people actually have different colored skin and different cultures which *gasp* they don’t want people to just ignore in some kind of white-washed wonderland of active denial. (Reminds me of the episode of The Office where Michael Scott says he’s color blind and then criticizes Oscar for calling himself Mexican saying it’s a racist slur. And then he gets slapped by Kelly for mimicking an Indian accent. Is me describing a funny show funny? No. Am I rambling? Yes. Do I have a point? Yes. See post-parentheses.))
Point: her stories reminded me of some of my majorly awkward racial mess-ups where I completely made a FOOL OF MYSELF. And I’m going to share one of them with you.
Here it is: I am at BYU and I am in an advanced literature class with a professor, Gloria Cronin, who happens to also be in charge of the student society for blacks on campus. She has mentioned this several times, and has talked about how alienated some of them have felt on campus because they are seen not as part of the whole, but instead as some anomaly, while fellow-students insistently point out how they differed from the norm. (I think the black population of BYU is like… 5. That’s an exaggeration. But not by a lot.) It made me sad.
One day I saw a black student sitting in the lobby of one of the buildings and I decided to be a hero and tear down the barrier of difference between us and let her know that I see her just as another student on campus. And I decided to do this by awkwardly walking up to her, sitting down by her, and striking up a conversation. About random stuff. In a small-talk kind of way. In a small-talk kind of way that had nothing to do with her as a person. And everything to do with the fact that she was a black girl on campus. Because that’s so normal and seamless and exactly what I would have done had I seen a white girl sitting in the lobby. And nothing makes people feel like part of the mainstream more than random strangers starting conversations about nothing for no reason! Go me! Racial Hero!!!!
The conversation… did not go well.
Me: Hi there!
Black girl: (Looks up at me trying to place my face) Hey.
Me: Are you a student here?
Black girl: Yes…?
Me: Oh. Cool. (awkward pause) Me too.
Black girl: Oh. Good. (smiles then looks back at what she was reading)
Me: So, what’s your major?
Black girl: (looking up again) What?
Me: Oh, I was just wondering what your major was.
Black girl: Geography.
Me: (excited face) That’s awesome! My wife’s a geography major. Have you ever met her? Her name’s Laurel Weed.
Black girl: (squinty eyes) I don’t think I’ve met her…
Me: Oh. That’s too bad. I think you’d like her.
Black girl: I’m sure I would.
Me: Oh, well I’m sure you know Gloria Cronin, right?
Black girl: No. Who is that?
Me: She’s the… (awkwardness rises up like a mist as it becomes very clear just how stupid that question was). She’s a professor of mine.
Black girl: Why were you so sure I’d know her?
Me: Well… because… (the awkwardness is so thick it’s palpable)
Black girl: (rolling her eyes) Is it somehow related to me being black?
Me: (beet red in the face) Yes. She’s the adviser to a group for Black students on campus, and I just assumed… (looks for a pair of scissors to stab self in the face repeatedly in order to lessen the horror of this moment)(finds none)
Black girl: ….
Me: I’m really sorry.
Black girl: It’s fine. I get this kind of thing all the time.
Yes. Yes that’s right. In my effort to be a hero, I became the very thing I thought I was fighting against. Because that’s how good I was at being culturally sensitive. And being aware of how to have a successful conversation with a person.
A few minutes later, a Caucasian serial killer appeared on the TV in the lobby and she turned to me and said “Isn’t it strange how many serial killers are white?” And then she got up and left.
I’m not joking.
Anyway, the point here is that all people have moments like this. People of every race have moments like this. And that’s okay. We just need to own it, not excuse it, and apologize when it happens. Because it will. It’s only a distinct few however, like myself, who decide to write a blog-posts about how idiotic they are because they need the attention.
The Weed is a Racial Superhero!!!!