This piece is an extended version of a blog post written in response to assigned readings for JUPS 271: Introduction to Engaging and Transforming Conflict. The theme of the week’s reading was Structural/Cultural Violence, Power and Privilege. Readings included selections from works by Michele Alexander, Johan Galtung, Peggy McIntosh, Elizabeth Martinez, and bell hooks. The hooks selections I refer to are from “killing rage: Ending Racism.”
After ten years in predominantly white educational environments as a “person of color,” I am still coming to terms with black rage. Because my parents are not themselves black Americans (they are immigrants from Jamaica), what I learned about race and how to feel about it as a “Black American” was mostly from the rage of other kids my age. When I joined an affinity group in high school, I learned from other kids’ stories that the privileged world we lived in was not made for us. I began to believe them when I could no longer ignore how little alike the lives of my classmates were to my own.
There were rich black people at that school who had a much easier time than I did. Class privilege is a very hard thing to call attention to when you’ve committed yourself to a scholarship worth $40,000 each year. At home I was reminded daily to make the most of this educational opportunity to have my choice of higher education options. At home I rode the bus from the bus junction towards the outer borough that most of my classmates had told me they wouldn’t be able to travel to visit (but I was always welcome to come over after school in their neighborhoods).
One day I distinctly felt black rage eclipse my thoughts before I could consciously acknowledge it. This was the day I realized it is realer than me. A friend of mine had invited me to the Hamptons for the weekend and I joined her in the kitchen for lunch to find her mother standing near a spread of fried chicken. There were watermelon slices nearby. I remembered a joke about black people loving watermelon and fried chicken from a movie. But I also thought I could remember my friend saying her family liked these foods themselves.
So I excused myself to call my mother outside and make sure. In all truth, my mother never prepared fried chicken in our house. That was something we had at KFC, if we happened to be out and it was easier than waiting until there was home-cooked food to be had. Food from my family’s culture is very important to us. It’s enjoyed even by people who are not of the culture for its distinct spices and seasonings. Sweet fruits were regularly brought back from Jamaica whenever my grandmother made visits during my childhood. In short, I had no taste in my Americanized palate for salty chicken and fruits that were not fleshy and full of flavor (like mangoes or guineps). But because all of this could not be explained in that moment I heeded my mother’s instruction and asked for a turkey sandwich instead. On second glance, the watermelon looked to very much be in season, but I would not touch it.
Now, reading what we did for this class this week and examining what I have lived through, I feel very connected to the emotion I tried very hard to deny that day. I feel that for all the academic work I can do, I must still be vigilant about what is happening within me as I stuff it all down to operate here at school. For the most part I have been able to suppress my subjectivity because I have found that it is easier for me to learn when I do not fill my mind with realizations of all the chicken and watermelon moments and comments I have experienced here. But the way bell hooks talks about realizing her rage in college… I have seen it in my own life. My thoughts often veer subconsciously to anti-establishment attitudes because my deep (acquired) culture has imprinted me with many examples of times in which established rules have worked within systems to minimize the possibility of dissent or even difference. Difference has always been a trait attributable to me, both by virtue of being classified as black in this country and by being a woman.
I would like to free myself of a consciousness of any feelings of rage whatsoever, but unfortunately what Ms. hooks says about it getting worse as you are more educated is proving true in my life. I am running into the most frustrating group of ignorant people — the highly educated — more and more these days. These readings made me revisit my own thoughts about what white privilege has meant in my own life, which was uncomfortable. I am glad to ease into this discomfort however, as I am learning more about what is alive within me each day. I think it is important to approach myself truthfully so as to not become a stranger to myself over time. I think what I am trying to do by sharing this is relate that my experience with this subject matter is ongoing and very personal to me, so it is hard to evaluate these readings objectively.
If something ever grows to be a part of you, and defines and shapes you the way race and class privilege in this country have come to shape my experiences… I don’t feel like talking with even “open-minded” white people about things they cannot feel. The articulation of this feeling is something I will be figuring out how to form for many years to come. It is not something I want to share with the minds of dilettantes in anthropological or Justice and Peace Studies classes who are trying their hand at being politically correct to fulfill a core requirement. It is a process within me that I do not wish to speak on until I am able to do so in my own words.
Tiffany Brown, Reader Submission