White Guy Problems
My wife and I live in a non-descript middle class suburban neighborhood. It’s more white than not, but there are a half-dozen families of color up and down the block, including a Hispanic couple and their kids two doors down and across the street. We haven’t socialized, but we wave from time to time. You know how it is with neighbors.
I hate mowing. I long for random teenagers to show up wanting to mow my lawn. YES! Oh my god yes – money is no object, son. Cut like the wind! Several years ago, I simply walked down the block to where a kid was mowing and asked if he wanted to come do mine for $20 as well. That was a great summer! Now that it’s Spring once again, I’ve been keeping my eye out for this season’s entrepreneurial youth...
I noticed a young man – a teenager, I think – mowing the lawn at the Hispanic house I mentioned. Excellent! I wonder if he’d be interest—
I’d started to walk over and ask if he wanted to mow my lawn. Then it hit me – he’s Mexican, or something. I was immediately gripped with the conviction that no matter how carefully I tried to phrase it, my “real” question would be clear: “Hey, I notice you’re Mexican – kay posse? You mow my lawnito?”
I had actual panic in my stomach, despite having never left my driveway. I was almost a racist! My brain took an impatient tone (I’d swear it sighed at me internally) and told me how ridiculous I was being. I just wanted someone to mow. Like he was doing right that minute, probably without even thinking about race. Logically, my course was clear.
But… I’ve been mowing my own lawn so far this season. I tell myself it’s about staying in shape. I’m not buying that, of course, but I try not to think about it too much.
There are words and phrases I’ve used for decades which are obvious leftovers from my old-school evangelical upbringing. For example, I readily refer to any male my age or younger as “brother” in casual conversation:
“You gonna make it, brother?”
“I guess we have to, don’t we?”
It’s not used in mockery of anyone or anything – it’s just how people talked to each other in the church in which I grew up. I find it warm without being too intimate, like adding just a dash of pepper to your eggs.
I used the term without thinking on lunch duty one day with a young Black man I don’t know. I was on autopilot while making the rounds, talking to kids and trying to be “a presence,” and made some joke about whatever was going on at his table as I walked by. It didn’t really work, and he wasn’t amused.
“We didn’t do anything.”
“I was just messing with you. No worries, brother!”
“Please don’t call me ‘brother.’”
Clearly I was failing at building those bonds they harp on in inspirational teacher books, but the kid wasn’t being hostile or particularly confrontational. It was, in fact, exactly the approach we encourage them to take when unhappy with something – use your words. Express what’s on your mind, clearly but politely. There’s no rule that says you have to smile and make the old white guy feel comfortable as part of the exchange.
“My apologies – just habit. But if you guys are doing OK here, I’m going to keep acting like I’m actually running things here just by walking around.”
That’s called diffusing the situation with hilarity.
It wasn’t a big deal by itself, but I was kicking myself internally. Then again, it could have been worse. I could have called him “boy.”
Before you explode in neo-liberal rage, please understand that something like half-a-century old and from Oklahoma. It takes constant effort not to slide into a very rural, clichéd drawl of the sort encountered in those Smokey and the Bandit movies, or any time we make national news for something embarrassing:
“We jes’ don’ think that these here Mooslims otter be ‘loud to jes’ train in are here flyin’ schools so as they can jes’ gunna fly some kin’a gawdammed plane into anotha’ church or nothin’! Choose this day who ya’ gonna’ serve is all I’m sayin’.”
My use of “boy,” therefore, has nothing to do with racial dynamics. In fact, it’s about as white as you can get, dialectically speaking. My kids hear it from me more than they'd like:
“Now look here, boy – ain’t you go no brains in your head at ALL, goin’ ‘round actin’ such a’ways in front of God and everyone? Holy Moses in a leaky basket, son!”
Sometimes meaning is so very context-specific.
Am I just being all politically correct and paranoid? I don’t think so. It’s more a matter of trying to communicate accurately and effectively, and being aware of audience – just like with those crazy primary sources we use in class. I’m not nearly as cautious around students with whom I have an actual relationship. They figure me out pretty quickly, and intent matters. If I say something that doesn’t register well, they usually tell me. Life is SO much easier that way.
But I horrify myself nonetheless. There are kids I get mixed up when they’re not in their “normal” seats while I’m handing back work. They tend to be of the same general description and don’t talk much in class – the same students whose names I can't remember when they come back to visit the next year.
I have a half-dozen pale little engineering boys throughout the day who read the same dragon books and wear what must be the same glasses. Most have good grades and speak when spoken to, but they’re not boisterous or anything. It’s embarrassing when I get them mixed up and give Clyde’s Herron’s paper to Herb Clyson, but hardly fatal.
It’s when I do the same thing with Kim Nguyen, Lisa Huyen, and Ann Xuinn – all perfect young ladies of Vietnamese extraction. They politely hand it back and inform me it’s not theirs, or – far worse – quietly trade papers after I move on. (In my defense, they always sit together and their handwriting looks exactly the same and oh god I think I’m white-splaining so I’m going to stop now.) Such carelessness on my part is unforgivable after the first week or two, but on top of that I fear I’ve somehow done something racist – or, far worse, looked like I’ve done something racist. It’s traumatic.
Oh, and probably weird for them, too, I guess.
And yet, when it comes down to it, I’m not exactly being persecuted for being an old straight grumpy white guy. If anything, the entire system is set up to support my biases and druthers. We’re a pretty balanced district when it comes to discipline, but general expectations and preferred means of communication, recreation, or even celebration, are largely dictated by what could be considered white middle class mores – what we call "the right way to do things."
Kids might make fun of their teachers from time to time, and that has to be addressed, but I’ve heard nothing that compares to the monkey noises aimed at a group of my Black girls earlier this year or the rather uninventive faux-Asian accents and pulled back slanty-eyes I had to confront just two weeks ago (completely unexpectedly, too). I can’t imagine being on the receiving end of such things at this age.
Other issues are less clear-cut. There’s an important difference between teaching kids how to speak and behave professionally in order to best promote their personal success and trying to force tired-old-white-lady behavior on them when they’re fifteen, bored, and not good at connecting actions with consequences. Important, but often blurry. And don’t get me started on “the soft bigotry of low expectations” or “grit” or…
In short, I simply can’t imagine what it’s like for anyone who doesn’t present as 100% sugar-and-gluten-free white bread.
I’ve been on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster the past few years as I’ve advocated for teachers and public education. Far too often I’ve become defensive, depressed, hostile, or completely irrational. I vividly remember sitting in a hotel room in St. Petersburg Florida last summer, 94% certain I was about to have an actual stroke over someone’s Facebook comments about #oklaed.
I’ve offended friends, gone low-road with antagonists, lost sleep, and otherwise been a mess over the rhetoric used towards my collective peers and the state’s overall treatment of my profession.
Which I chose.
And could leave at any time.
While living in a comfortable house. In a safe neighborhood.
Surrounded by friends and a system currently in distress but still very much catering to my demographic.
Annoyed but unafraid of the police if I’m stopped for a busted tail light.
Certain if I’m treated badly by the person across the counter that the issue is crappy customer service.
Knowing if I raise my voice to the folks who for some reason simply cannot find their clearly labeled seats in the arena (even though the game has started and if letters and numbers are that complicated perhaps they should arrive earlier) they might resent me or even threaten me, but that they’re unlikely to assume I represent my entire demographic – particularly since they’re usually part of it as well.
So maybe I do have white guy problems... but they don't seem so bad compared with those who don't.