Friday, June 23, 2006

would you like to try the ribs?

(First of all, I'm sorry for not posting in so long... apparently people check this semi-regularly, and yet it's been almost a month since I last posted. Yes, my internet access has been a little spotty, but I still appreciate the fact that people care and I feel bad for leaving you post-less. So thanks for reading, and I'll try to get better about the regular-posting-ness. Perhaps a certain boyfriend of mine can do the same on his blog. ;)

For those of you who don't know me personally or especially well, you may not know how I've spent my time lately. I'm working under a professor at my university who does some research on stomatopods (who I will most likely post about at some point because they are just about the most interesting animals evar) and coordinates two big outreach projects. I've been helping him with the outreach programs so far this summer, and I love it. Both biology and education are interests and either past or current majors of mine, so a mix of the two is absolutely superb.

The job also includes some super sweet perks, one of which includes room and board at the university during the biology programs (two programs at two weeks apiece for high schoolers). While about half of the high school students coming to the program are local or semi-local (commuting every day), the other half are from Indy and stay on campus in a residence hall (probably Purdue's nicest dorm, actually) during the week. I'm staying in one of the rooms, just like the students. Actually, I have a student roommate. Anyway-- all of these kids are from Indianapolis, and with the exception of 3 students, maybe (out of approximately 15? kids), all of them are African-American. (From here on out, I'm going to use "black" and "white" when applicable, because although it may not be considered politically correct, I find it both easier and more natural, and I don't think I'll offend anyone. Hopefully, anyway.)

A few days ago, the kids started a conversation about racism, and it was really interesting. Everything started with one black boy feeling offended by a white man making small talk with him and asking if he was a basketball player. This boy felt like the man assumed that because he was a young black male, he must play basketball. He handled it well, though, telling the man about the biology camp, and the man replied that he was part of a group there for a 3-on-3 basketball tournament, and had seen this boy with his two friends.

This boy told the other students and the two teacher/mentors about it. The first teacher, a white man who relates really well to the students, tried to explain to the boy that while it was perfectly possible that the man did make a racist assumption, there were other options. The man could have been thinking of the circumstances (a high school 3-on-3 tournament going on, seeing him in a group of 3 high school boys), or simply not thinking much (maybe he had basketball on the brain?). The teacher wasn't saying that the man absolutely was not being racist, because the teacher couldn't know, obviously... the teacher just wanted to make the point that the man might not have intended his comment in a racist fashion at all.

This makes a lot of sense to me. In my opinion, if a person of one race assumes that a person of another race is being racist... then that person is being racist. That's confusing, so let me try again. If Blue Guy assumes that Red Guy's comment or action is racist just because Red Guy happens to be Red, then Blue Guy is actually being racist against Red Guys. It's still kind of confusing, but maybe a bit better?

The other teacher disagreed entirely. She, a black woman, was quite adamant that if a black person gives the benefit of the doubt to a white person who said a questionably racist comment, that black person is failing to fight racism and failing to stand up for their race. I have a big problem with that, because she was essentially saying that people should assume the worst intent. Apparently a tactful inquiry into the person's action/comment is absolutely not even an option. Making an ignorant assumption is much better, in her opinion.

I'm not trying to say racism doesn't exist or shouldn't be acknowledged when it does occur; I'm also not trying to say I know what it feels like to be stereotyped in the same manner as a black person. But I feel like racism is only propogated by behavior like that. I don't think the racism of the past or present should be "gotten over" or forgotten-- but I also don't think that dwelling helps things. It's important to learn from what happened before and then to apply it to what's happening now to make things better. And, in my opinion, making assumptions about someone else rarely makes anything better. I mean, we all know how the word "assume" breaks down.

An example of this type of assumption... as the student group was leaving the restaurant where they had this loud and boisterous racism discussion, an older white man with a Vietnam veteran's hat stopped the white teacher. He asked the teacher if this was a rap group, and the teacher was at first somewhat taken aback. He corrected the guy, explaining about the science camp, and said something about the man making an assumption that a group of mostly young black students would be a rap group... and now the older man seemed surprised. "Oh, no, that's not what I meant!" he said. "I was talking about a WRAP group, like in the Vietnam era." Apparently in that time, it was popular for groups of students to get together and discuss issues and opinions, much like the science group had done that night. It made perfect sense, and the man didn't at all mean to be racist, even though initially it certainly sounded like he was stereotyping.

It was an interesting ending to the evening, to say the least. The incident with the older man just showed that misunderstandings are not only possible, but happen. It's all really intriguing to me, mainly because I've rarely felt the pressure of any stereotype against me. But I'm definitely glad for the opportunity to spend time with intelligent people and peers who can try to fill me in and teach me and tell me what they've experienced. I feel like my job is teaching me a lot of unexpected things. Guess that's just another one of the perks. :)