Monday, April 17, 2006

brown crayons

two bloggers have got me thinking about isms and so i offer this story. you should also check out their blogs... they are abb and gayprof.

years ago, while hubby and i were on internship, i was asked to be the director of a church summer program in newark, nj. now hubby and i lived in newark the year it was named the most violent city in america. we didn't live in the hood, but in the ironbound, which was predominately portugese and brazillian and most of them were illegal. it was the year we were married and hubby and i still think back on it as one of the best times of our lives.

the church was st john's and was set in the clinton hill section of newark. it was the hood. the apartment building next to the church was condemned, but still occupied, and the tenents paid their rent to a slum lord. the local governement was so corrupt that nothing ever happened.

kids from the apartments often played in the church parking lot and that's what got us thinking about starting the program that lasted 7 weeks that summer, and went all day.

we hired people from the church to help us run the program and the pastor invited two older teenaged girls from arizona to come and teach for the experience of working in the inner city.

we had 50 kids each day. some days kids we had never seen before would be sitting in a class. "where did you come from?" i'd ask. "momma told me to come with my cousin to church camp." "ok, but i will need your momma to fill out these forms if you want to come back tomorrow."

one day, somewhere in the middle of the program, my 16 year old, mother of an 18 month old daughter, teacher of the 3rd and 4th graders, was sent off to over night camp. (she returned a day later because she hated it). i took over her class and decided to teach the lesson of jesus blessing the children. we did the lesson and then i sent them to their seats to color pictures of jesus and some children.

we were a low-budget camp, so i had buckets of crayons and as the kids sat down i made my way around their tables, dumping handfuls of crayons on the tables for them to use to color their pictures. i was about half-way done when i heard, "miss cats, i need a brown crayon."

ok. i turned around, dug through my bucket and found a brown crayon for the one kid when i heard another child ask for a brown crayon and then another.

what the heck did they need with so many brown crayons? was there a tree in the picture?

and then it hit me. they needed the brown crayons for the faces of the children in the picture. i scrambled to make certian that every child had a brown or black crayon and then i sat down and pondered the whole thing.

i pondered me and my white skin and the fact that if i were coloring a picture of a child i would not need a brown crayon, or any color crayon for that matter if i wanted the chold in the picture to reflect me. i suddenly understood white priveledge in a way i never had before.

later on, after camp summer joy was over and i was back in seminary for my senior year i shared this story with one of my professors. racism, he explained, has always been defined as power plus prejudice, but really it is power plus prejudice plus priveledge.

as a side note he and another prof at seminary were the only two african american men on staff. they were also the busiest. one day, when i pointing this out to one of them, he told me "don't go there." and then we both laughed because we knew i was right.

the fact of the matter is that i am christian, white, and straight. if you don't count the fact that i'm female priveledge is my middle name.

i never have to worry about discrimination unless i choose to (or unless my lack of male genitalia somehow gets into the mix.) my best friend growing up was black. i called her and told her about the brown crayons. "i'm struggling with racism." i told her. and then i made a confession: whenever i told people stories about her i often introduced the story: "my best friend, who's black, and i..."

"why do i have to tell people that you are black? you are my friend, that's the important point of the story. is this white guilt?"

"you are not a racist."

i needed to hear that.

but the fact remains, no matter how unconditional i am when it comes to people who are different... i still struggle with the idea that my middle name is priveledge. if i get tired of dealing with intolerance i can forget about it for awhile and deal with it at my leisure.

i can read a news story about hate crimes and think: "how horrible!" and then get back to my life.

except that if what i am as a christian, white, straight person means that i am recieve a special king of priveledge then i also believe that means i have also have a responsibitily to those who don't get special treatment because of what they are.

if what i am makes me "special" then who i am needs to honor the fact that i have been given an opportunity to do something special by advocating for those who don't get special priveledge.

and i don't mean, i'm so special so i need to help those poor un-special people. i don't mean that since i am in charge of distributing the crayons that i need to make sure that black people get the brown crayons from the box, or that gay people get all the pink ones.

i mean: i have a unique opportunity to remind people that the crayon box belongs to all of us and that we all have a responsibility to ensure that people get the crayons they need to color this world.

what a lesson those kids taught me that day.

God's peace y'all


air_force1 said...

Hello. I read your post on ABB and I thought I would check your blog out. As a white, straight, male I must say I thought it was pretty ridiculous. You are absolutely generalizing white, straight, Christian men having a one-up on the rest of the world and being able to live a privileged life. I may be wrong but that is how I read it. To me that is racist. Not everyone white is born into privilege and believe me some of us have it hard. I know that I am not a racist and I do not need my black friends to tell me that to feel good about myself. I am sorry that you are ashamed of who you are, it is too bad and I will have my privileged brethren say a prayer for you.

cats said...

thanks air force 1, i don't consider myself a racist either. but the fact of the matter is i will never have to worry about the kind of discrimination that others face because i am xtian, white and straight.

i'm not ashamed of myself or who i am. i'm pretty self-aware. that said i will always take prayers

CrackerLilo said...

Seeing a "multicultural" pack of Crayola crayons kind of hit me and L'Ailee a few months back, just as a reminder that our skin colors are liked better in American society than others, even though there are so many others. Makeup counters can do that to us, too. At least Crayola no longer calls the peach one "flesh."

The fact that you *can* learn and feel and worry means that you haven't got that much to worry about, I think.

CP said...

Beautiful post, Cat. Got here via the Angry Black Bitch husself, cause I love me some Bitch.

I also wanted to let you know that air_force1 is an imbecile if he truly doesn't believe that straight, white, Christian MEN are priviledged in this country. Delusional, in fact. While I do agree that a story should never start with "I have a friend, who's black", because to me...that doesn't make a crapload of difference. Unless you are trying to find someone who committed a crime, skin tone doesn't matter. It is descriptive, no different than if someone called me fat. But I also do not believe it makes you a RACIST because you do so. Obviously, AF1 hasn't been privvy to racial or religious discrimination to be able to have a real grasp on the matter.

He appears to be a sarcastic asswipe, but his opinion is important, nevertheless. Why? Because it is always good to have a disillusioned fool make the rest of us look a lot smarter.

Blow it off, doll. You learned a valuable lesson of color from children. That's priceless and you shared it willingly with people. You admitted your flawed thinking and that makes you all the more beautiful.



"and vivian followed."

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