This post is about racism…but not in the way you might be thinking…
And it’s long…I’m sorry…but I can’t help it.
So …I haven’t encountered much overt racism in my life…in either direction. I remember one incident where my grandfather used the N word one too many times and we got into it and I never went back to his house. Ever. It saddens me and there were other issues there, but his world view and mine were completely different. We were raised in two completely different cultures and it angered me to no end that he couldn’t open his mind to any other points of view. I hung out with some black kids in high school, but the most slack I got about that was from some black kids who didn’t approve of the white girl hanging around. They had their issues too. It wasn’t a black thing…it was them personally. Anyway, other than that, I feel I was brought up fairly even kill. My mother always taught me that anyone can be anything they want to be and nothing, especially race, will hold them back. Even if this wasn’t entirely true at that point…it was IMPERATIVE that I believed it…it SHAPED who I was to become. She taught me that education was key and there was never EVER a question of whether or not I would go to college. I wasn’t coordinated or athletic, artsy or creative..but dammit I made straight A’s and that was my ticket. I always knew this.
So I graduate from college and enter the work force and my first job as a real life therapist is doing “in-home” therapy. It was the hardest, most heartbreaking work I have ever done and I would NEVER ever go back. But I wouldn’t trade the experience for all the money in the world either. I worked with families that had DHR involved…either the kids had already been removed and they were being placed back in the home…or DHR was trying to help preserve the family unit and keep from having to remove the children. Alot of times I was dealing with parents who had abused their kids. I was supposed to come in and do family therapy for a few weeks and voila…all better. I was supposed to teach “parenting skills” and “communication skills.” You get the picture. I was dealing mostly with families in the inner city. Most of the people I worked with had never experienced anything outside of their community. These families were in the worst kind of poverty, had no education, and most of the parents were unemployed or had inconsistent employment. They had a whole different value system and things like “family unity” and education, and communication weren’t part of it. And so began the “what’s this white bitch doing coming in my house trying to tell me how to raise my kids.” I heard it more times than I can count in varying forms. Alot of times I could bring them around to trust me and listen to what I had to say…but several I couldn’t. I quickly realized it wasn’t about teaching parenting skills or working on conflict resolution skills…I was up against an entirely different world view…they simply didn’t believe life could be any better for them….
One day I was visiting a family that was one of my most severe. I won’t go into details because this is already getting lengthy but one of the kids was beginning to really turn around. He had come out of his shell, I had gotten him into a better school, he was making friends, making good grades and getting ready to take the ACT to apply for college. If you have seen Precious you don’t have to do much imagining…Monique’s character was this kid’s mom…to the letter. One day I was over helping him fill out his ACT application and mom came in angry about something. She began to yell and picked up a phone and threw it at the kid. She screamed at him “always got your nose in a damn book…you think you’re so much better than everyone…just trying to be white.” I was speechless…I was scared…but most of all I was LIVID. Your son is trying to make something of his life and you browbeat him for it? And since when did trying to get an education mean you’re “trying to be white”? Only white people are educated? Although that was the first time I heard that phrase, unfortunately it wasn’t the last.
So I move to a job in a residential facility where I am now. I see teens all day long…black and white. And 99% of the time when I try to talk to black kids about their future or getting an education they often say to me “those things won’t happen to me…I’m not white.” I have seen kids get made fun of when trying to study. When I encourage kids to dream big they say it just isn’t possible. Why? Because that’s their world view. In their community they have few examples of people making it out of their neighborhood, getting an education, achieving their dreams. And these aren’t my assumptions…this is what they tell me. They are taught that even the act of dreaming is stupid and pointless. Let me insert here, and be very clear, that I’m obviously not talking about ALL black people. I’m taking about the community, the subculture, with which I have worked for several years…inner city, poor, uneducated….families with severe drug addictions and severe abuse histories. I know there is just as much diversity among blacks as there is whites. We have many cultures within each race and this is just one. And sure this isn’t the view of ALL people in this community.. but this is the view among the majority of the kids I have worked with so that’s what I have to go on.
But it goes far beyond education and dreams. It cuts to the core of their self worth and everything they believe about life, who they are, their place in the world, right and wrong. And you might say …”well look at the families they come from.” True… most come from abusive backgrounds with mean ass, drug addicted parents who were themselves abused. Most people think it’s a never ending cycle and they would rather shield their eyes from this kind of sadness. When I try to talk to my own mother about some of the things I hear at work she covers her ears and says “I don’t want to know.” Some days I come home from work and have to remind myself that there are happy families out there…with loving parents and stable relationships. You have no idea how it soothes me to get on Facebook and see pictures of my friends with their kids…being parents…being families…loving each other. This post has become less about racism, I suppose, and more about something else….
Today I had my regular wednesday girls therapy group and I decided to introduce this topic for discussion. I knew it might be risky but I wanted to get them thinking. It turned out to be powerful and moving. Many kids shared that their own parents had taught them the same thing…”those things don’t happen to people like us…white people get all the opportunities…black people can’t have shit.” And most of them believed it. We embarked on a discussion about the world outside of what they knew and it was baffling just how little they actually knew about life outside of their communities. The thing that bothered me the most was their view of black people who had achieved success…most of those people were talked about like they were traitors…like they just “fit into the white world” and “forgot where they came from.” It was so hard for them to imagine that not all black people “come from” where they come from. Many grow up in upper middle class families and live in the suburbs and shop at the mall!!! They have just simply never been exposed to this. The white girls chimed in too and shared some of their experiences with racism. It was a wonderful dialogue and so many of them wanted to talk that I ended up putting them on a 2 min talk limit and used the timer on my iPhone! We dispelled alot of myths and inaccurate beliefs. I was able to include a couple of other staff members who were black and they had really valuable input too. I heard alot of things like “white people want to keep us down”…and other assumptions about how “all white people” think or feel. I almost wanted to cry. I even addressed alot of the assumptions a few of them had about me…that I grew up privileged, that I hadn’t known any suffering…that I had an easy life…that I thought I was “better than” black people. If you know my story you know that’s quite the opposite. I could go on and on about this….but I will try to wrap it up. In a nutshell, they talked openly about the things they believed and listened to differing points of view. They were open minded. They were hopeful. And the group ended with “2 snaps for Ms. Katie” which I’ve never gotten so I felt special 😀
I told the girls…if you take anything away from today’s group, take this: even though you may not have experienced it, there is big wonderful world out there with lots of opportunities and you can be ANYTHING you want to be. It sounds cliche but it’s true. And I’m not naive, I know racism exists. I know that for many of them, coming from where they come from, it will be hard. But it’s possible. I’ve seen it. And the most important thing is for these kids to discover hope…something most of them have never had.
Sometimes I go to work and I’m angry that most people in my world have no idea how bad it is for kids like these. The trauma that my kids have endured is mind boggling and heartbreaking. It’s not just black kids and it’s not just inner city kids..but this topic was in the forefront of my mind today so I had to share. I share this with you for many reasons. I feel so overwhelmed by it all. It’s a never ending revolving door of these kids coming in and the stories just get worse and worse. Where do we even begin. How is it that in 2010 there is almost an entire subculture of people who believe they are destined for failure?
Part of my purpose in blogging was to expose my friends/family to the tragedy and suffering of children in this broken system I work in. I realized that most of the people I associate with live in their own sort of bubble…just like my kids. I’m not trying to be Debbie Downer here, but I hope to open eyes or move people in some way. I wish I could anonymously post the histories of some of the kids I work with. It would hopefully sicken some people to the point that they might get involved. We need mentors (we are currently on a waiting list for those), we need quality foster parents, we need dedicated (not jaded) social workers, we need people in the system that think FORWARD and not backwards, we need people working for change that don’t hold the same “destined to fail” point of view. We need people who believe in these kids and don’t look at them like “problems”. Who understand where they came from and what made them who they are today.
So yes…I think I’m fighting a culture war…I’m fighting generations and generations of dysfunction and brokenness. I just wonder if we are gaining any ground for the good side….