Friday, June 26, 2009

My Urban Studies Journey: Part V

Even though I didn’t stay in Arloa’s class for more than the first few sessions, her first assigned reading had a profound impact on me in those first highly impressionable weeks. The article was by Jawanza Kunjufu, and my reactions to the article represent the struggles I felt for a major part of the semester:

After reading Kunjufu’s article I felt extremely defensive of my white-ness. At the same time I felt extremely guilty for being white and unable to relate fully to a minority experience. As much as I want to understand racial issues, discover my own racist tendencies, to confront them and then reconstruct my worldview in a Christ-centered, racially sensitive manner, I don’t even know if that’s possible because I am white. I feel placed in an insensitive, white, middle-class suburban box. When do I get to stop feeling guilty? Should I get to stop feeling guilty? Do I even have anything to contribute to a discussion on racial reconciliation and do I ever get to stop feeling guilty for being white?

These themes of frustration, guilt, defensiveness, tension, were pivotal in shaping my WIC experience. One day I reflected on the my instinctive reactions to the people I saw on a typical commute to work:

I have to admit, as I was walking down the street listening to my iPod with my Starbucks coffee mug in hand, on my way to work, I allowed myself to feel like a “real” urbanite. I didn’t even make it around the block before I encountered a man evidently suffering from both mental and physical disabilities, pushing a walker and talking to himself. We made eye contact. He looked at me out of eyes that just wept sorrow, discomfort, and any and every emotion completely opposite to my self-righteous sophisticated-cool attitude. I dropped my eyes and walked more quickly across the street. I’m not sure what I was feeling – ashamed, guilty, pity, maybe. Either way, I was stripped of my urbanite attitude and left with my reality: I’m an ignorant white suburban girl posing as a yuppie while claiming to at least minimally understand racial relations.

Everything we were experiencing in the city coincided with what we were learning or reading about in classes. In Urban Theory we read Gentrification and There Goes the Hood, both focusing on the displacement of minorities by, generally, white middle-class people from the suburbs. It felt like blame was coming from every direction, blame for things I didn’t do, couldn’t have done – and I was frustrated. I was frustrated with my ignorance, my ignorance both specifically about the issue and generally with what it meant to have a minority experience. But mostly I was scared I would discover that the blame actually didn’t land too far from my own life.

Apparently race runs deeper than I could ever have imagined. I don’t want to be racist. I don’t want to hold these prejudices. I’m afraid of finding out how many I actually hold, of how racist and white I really am, of how euro-centric my worldview is…and how much I’ll have to change in order to even come close to beginning to understand what it means to strive for racial reconciliation. As a white, affluent, suburban girl, do I even have anything to offer? Should I even attempt to understand? Is it a hopeless cause because my side has won, thus far?

When will I feel like I belong? Can I ever belong? Am I always to be judged by my own race, just as I judge others by theirs without even realizing it? Does being white, the majority, the privileged, the winner, automatically and forever exclude me from participating in the restoration of the kingdom and racial reconciliation? Are my experiences all invalid, unjust, and negatively skewed? Will I always be so defensive? I don’t want to sink back into my white, suburban affluent experience, with my iPod and Macbook, Starbucks and the mall, simply because it is comfortable and claim that “they” forced me here because “they” judged me. I don’t want to take the easy way out.

Over and over I felt frustrated over my apparent inability to participate in the discussion of racial reconciliation because of something I couldn’t control – my whiteness. Just as someone born into a minority community has no control over their heritage, neither did I. I didn’t ask to be white and middle class, and just because society had been constructed so mine was the better lot in life, I could never participate in the discussions that seemed to be most crucial to understanding life in the city. This frustrated me almost right off the bat.
One of the most vital lessons I learned, and perhaps even skill I developed, during my WIC semester was to appreciate and accept being white. It was a long process, and even in writing this essay and reflecting over my journals I’ve realized some of those defensive tendencies aren’t quite as latent as I thought. Either way, it was important for me to learn to accept who I was before I was able to altogether jump into the discussion of urban issues.

At some point, I have to come to terms with the fact that I am white, and I am fully, 100%, tried-and-true a part of “white culture.” …I don’t have to be ashamed, or guilty, of being white. I have to embrace it as the life that God granted me, that he blessed me with, and that he wants me to use to its utmost potential. Instead of worrying about what I have that sometimes I wish I didn’t have so I wouldn’t be hated for it, I should spend that time figuring out what I have to help those who don’t. Or, more importantly, simply (or not so simply) becoming more like Christ, and stop trying so hard to do it on my own.

A major experiential part of the Urban Studies program is the field trips taken every Thursday to various parts of the city. I have a love/hate relationship with those field trips, and I think most other WIC students would share my reluctant admission of their merits. Without those field trips I’m certain I never would have ventured into those parts of the city; the only other time I went on the South Side was to visit the Museum of Science and Industry, not exactly a part of the Chicago “off the beaten track.” But for all of the interesting sites we visited and all of the perspectives I gathered on the variety of urban issues plaguing Chicago, what I really took away from those field trips was the intense feeling of “otherness” they brought upon each of us. I wrote after our visit to the Icke Public Housing projects:

In terms of an educational and observational visit then yes, [our visit to the projects] was extremely worthwhile. But that is precisely why I am not quite sure exactly how worthwhile the visit was. Is it worth it to walk past these projects, with people sitting outside chatting and going about their daily business, in a horde (yes, HORDE), of white people, stopping to talk about the projects and the educational tidbits to enhance our field trip experience, and ultimately using these people and their home as we would, essentially, a zoo? Simple specimens to be examined in order to benefit and enhance our $30,000 a year education? To fuel our vague, sociological, scholarly, somewhat abstract discussions that we hold over coffee and on our couches in our school-funded gentrified apartment building?

All I could think about as we were walking past the buildings is how uncomfortable I felt. How uncomfortable I felt because I was white – both because I was in a neighborhood that is 95% African American, and because I was in a horde of other white students which solidified my position as one of “those people,” those white people coming to stare at my life, my poverty, my broken home…

Speaking strictly in knowledge-gathering terms, our field trips proved irreplaceable. While reading Gentrification and There Goes the Hood provided me with a general understanding of the issue of gentrification and the displacement of minority communities, it wasn’t until I visited the projects that I could even being to grasp the gravity, and reality, of the situation. “I know that visiting ‘the projects’ is not a comfortable situation for anyone, the viewers and the viewed alike. But at the moment it is one of the only logical ways to help students, and me, really see the negative consequences of gentrification – and finally put a face to its evils.” In a similar way, our visits to the LAFMC (Legal Aid Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago) and the Englewood Community Development Corporation helped me to more concretely understand the financial crises, and the corresponding loan crises, that began to grip the residents of Chicago halfway through our semester. After those visits I was able to more knowledgeably and fluently speak about the economic crises and more critically analyze its impact on residents of urban communities.

No comments: