Director, Multicultural and International Programs and Services
College of St. Catherine
2004 Randolph Ave, F-29
St. Paul, Minnesota 55105
Campus Commons Section
Editor: Lee Burdette Williams
Donna Hauer is the Director of Multicultural and International Programs and Services at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, MN. She teaches and offers trainings on issues of oppression and their interconnectedness. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Confessions of a Recovering Racist
I had Joe pegged on the first day. A handsome, intelligent, confident, African American man, extremely well mannered and well read, but cautious; a chip on his shoulder. Masculine in a reserved sort of way. He was an active participant, respectful, and although small in stature, carried himself with the intensity of Malcolm X. Other students in the group were a little – no, a lot – intimidated by him, including me, the co-facilitator.
This was a pilot program - a collaboration between Residence Life and a cutting edge new University department focusing on the interconnectedness of oppression - purely voluntary and co-curricular for students interested in issues of diversity. We were bringing together undergraduates in a structured setting, providing the opportunity for informal interaction and diversity education with the goal of breaking down stereotypes; building allies by building friendships. “Nexus” – connection. As co-leaders, Tina and I provided reading materials, speakers, videos, and facilitated discussions to guide the process. We had found from previous experiments that the best way to wreak havoc with students’ assumptions was to introduce them to others different from themselves - cause cognitive dissonance - and get out of the way. While this was pre-Beverly Tatum’s, “Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria,” that practice was certainly common, just not published. We wanted students to understand the interconnectedness of oppression, as well as their own social location, rather than staying stuck in their own issue.
That was my problem with Joe. He was definitely stuck in his own issue – racism. That was understandable, being a black man, but I wanted him to be open to learning about the other oppressions. Or maybe, I wanted him to learn about my oppression. He seemed only distantly interested.
So I was disappointed, but not surprised, when Joe was a no-show the evening we discussed GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) issues. Sure he called to apologize and explain his absence, but I knew the real reason – homophobia. A lesson in heterosexual privilege would have served him well. While he probably believed he’d heard it all before, I wanted to teach him a thing or two.
While Joe treated me with the utmost respect, I never really got the sense that he thought I knew crap about this diversity stuff, regardless of my years of experience in the field. After all, I was a white woman. Yes I was “out,” so that garnered a little credibility, but still, no contest versus the struggles of one not so fortunate in his ability to have his difference be invisible. While I agree with Audre Lorde that, “there is no hierarchy of oppression,” Joe’s stern exterior and recitation of civil rights history validated only African Americans as the true winners of the “Oppression Olympics”. I was painfully aware of my white privilege and my ability to choose whom I would come out to and whom I would rather not – albeit a mixed blessing.
As a young Black man, Joe didn’t have that option. There was no rest for him. No “passing” zones. No let up from the constant stereotyping and instant fear he evoked; women clutching their purses a little tighter in his presence, the clicking of car doors locking as he passed. While I could never walk in his shoes, I did appreciate and understand the difficult road he had to navigate in this racist culture; all assumptions made about him solely based on color of skin rather than content of character.
So I was surprised to get a call from Joe early one Monday morning insisting he needed to meet with me about something he could not discuss over the phone. I returned his message promptly, setting the time and place, still curious as to why he wanted to get together with me. Why not Tina? She was a person of color. They clicked. What could I possibly offer someone like Joe who “appreciated but learned nothing new” from Jane Elliot’s (famed founder of the brown-eyed/blue-eyed experiment) presentation on campus the week before? My experience and wisdom were not pertinent.
Promptly at 3:00 Joe arrived, looking as cool and serious as ever. I closed my usually open door to answer his tone of formality and confidentiality.
He wasted no time getting to the point. Isolation. Loneliness.
Understandable. There certainly weren’t many students of color living on campus. And unfortunately these feelings were all too common. I was waiting for him to elaborate on these familiar themes I’d heard over and over from students of color studying and living at a large, impersonal, racist, predominantly white university. I settled in.
“My boyfriend broke up with me.” He went on to share his story of a first love ended – not by his choosing. He had answered an ad… they’d been dating a while… he thought things were going well…
Did he say, “boyfriend”? My mind froze on that word until the reality produced a quick thaw.
He went on to tell of his first attempt at sharing his experience of love lost. “I called my mom yesterday because she’s my best friend and I wanted to talk with her about having my heart broken.” His whole demeanor softened. “It didn’t go well. Hell of a Mother’s Day present.” Tears were welling in his eyes.
My face blushed a bright Christmas-sweater-red as I tried to mask my shock and remain an attentive listener. Torrents of admonishments crashed into my conscience. How could I have been so blind? So judgmental? So wrong about him? At the same time I wanted to share my accumulated wisdom of years “in the trenches,” or should I say “out” in the trenches. Losing my best friend, common family concerns, knowing holidays are not the optimal “coming out “ times in case things don’t go well, etc. Arm him with as much information and as many resources as possible. I was thankful he was at a place with “out” faculty, staff and students he could identify, rather than having no one or nowhere to turn. I fought my urge to mount my soap box and just listened.
Joe poured out his heart, spilling with it a painful coming out story – a different variation on a theme I had heard all too often. Isolation. Loneliness. Struggles of a student studying and living at a large, impersonal, homophobic, university. He had come to terms with his own identity after years of denial and strife. He knew his Baptist minister father would not embrace his truth, but he counted on his mother – a single parent raising an only child. They were close.
But she, too, disappointed. As much as he tried to explain, she recited back typical societal rhetoric, “It’s just a phase. You need to get over this. You need to pray about this. That University has put this craziness in your head…” She claimed he was no longer her son, or at least not the same one she had sent off to college. Obviously this mother was not ready to hear that her child, her pride and joy, her best friend, was gay.
I tried to reassure Joe that just as it had taken him time to come to terms with his sexual orientation, his mother would also need time. “Be patient” seemed too small a condolence for someone who had just lost lover, best friend, and mother in a matter of days. His isolation and loneliness were complex, like his identity.
What a different impression I had of this courageous, sensitive, lovesick young man. Having not shed a tear for ten years, he had spent all day Sunday crying alone in his room – feeling more isolated than imaginable. No pamphlets, referrals or resources would heal the hurt at this point. We cried together.
We set another meeting and I offered to do anything he could identify that might be of help.
He had one request. Could I call his mother? He was concerned that she didn’t have anyone to talk to about this. She wouldn’t want anyone to know.
I assured him I would, hoping my gulp wasn’t audible.
Before Joe left I confessed and apologized for the judgments I had made. Usually I prided myself on the accuracy of my “gaydar” but clearly my internal gadgetry missed the signals.
Obviously it wasn’t programmed to detect layers of identity.
I thanked him for confiding in me and providing me with an “ah ha” experience I would never forget, a completely unexpected turnabout: I was the one stuck in my own issue, unwilling to look beyond color to consider that we shared an oppression and a community.
How wrong I was about Joe not understanding the interconnectedness of oppression, on the contrary, he lived it daily.
I’m just lucky he didn’t have me pegged on the first day.