There were signs taped around campus with the words, “It’s okay to be white.” Walking through the dark from the bus to my office, from my office to the classroom building, these were what greeted me. And each one bothered me, each one I took down. Easy to remove the printer paper adhered with its single piece of tape. Easy to justify, as they were layered over other campus signs or on doors that are reserved for official announcements.
The last one was on the door to my classroom that others had already passed through and that others would open after me. I pulled it, added it to my modest pile, and delivered them all to the garbage can inside the class.
It is okay to be white. It’s okay to be lots of things. It’s also okay to acknowledge what that whiteness means and what privilege it carries. It’s not just “okay,” it’s a clear advantage. It’s hardly worthy of announcement. It bothers me that this Sunday night sign campaign was likely motivated by prejudice, fear, or even hate. It bothers me almost as much that the argument and this statement, “okay to be white,” is inept if not dishonest. Right, we’re all okay to be. But it’s a false argument. No one is taking away anyone else’s race or heritage or culture or identity. Making the misguided argument is something that can only be done from a place of privilege. Putting the signs up in the first place diminishes the foundation of any stance you might have been trying to take.
And, also, mostly, we could do less to stand up for ourselves, people you’re already surrounded by. We need to do more for those who are of another group. The last thing I wanted was for D. or J. to walk through that door with that sign and see that here, on my classroom entry, was yet another piece of our society that was saying they were less than.
I’m angry; and, I’m becoming more and more cognizant of this anger. It’s not a sensible emotion, and I can’t rectify it. Sure, you can point to the signs or to the politics or to the debates or to the denials of things that are important and assure me that I have a right to be. It’s like this extra cul-de-sac of emotion in my neighborhood, a dead end I keep driving into and even circling around in. I don’t get anywhere no matter how fast I go.
I’m angry I haven’t written more on projects that are important to me, and I’m angry that writing more wouldn’t make a difference. I’m angry there’s only 3 weeks left in the term; I’m angry there’s not more I have finished or at least tidied; I’m angry I haven’t done right by my students. I’m angry that I’ve said “I’ll take care of that” — the bathroom fan or the paperwork or a task that someone else is relying on — and I’ve fallen short. I’m angry that blood pressure recommendations have been adjusted and that I probably qualify for some kind of treatment.
And I’m angry at people. The Republicans, to start, but also the Democrats. The progressives and the Christians and those who are both, and also those who are yelling and those who are standing oblivious to the side. I was angry about a push poll pushed upon me by my own Representative, and then I turn around to see a science advocacy group doing the same thing. I’m angry at others I don’t know who aren’t listening, at beloved friends who aren’t listening, at myself who isn’t listening. Excuse me for saying it, but if we’re really honest about it we have to admit that we’re acting like a bunch of fucking assholes, all of us.
And so my inner psyche, the voices in my head, the coursing of fire in my veins, collectively, is trying to decide if tearing down signs was about my own anger, a response to someone else’s, or both. Or neither. Maybe I’m just cleaning up the trash I see, finally following through with something, some small task that I can complete. Deep down I’m afraid it will just be back there again tomorrow, and then it will be just one more task to add to the list, one more round in the cul-de-sac of my frustration.
I parked in that psychological cul-de-sac for the evening, came back to face myself in the morning, drank some coffee. Here I am, still drinking my coffee, getting ready for class. I’m telling myself, and I believe, the question I need to return to is this: What can I do today that will make the world better than it would have been otherwise, without me? There must always be something. It just might not always be an overall net gain, but I’ll finish my coffee, go to class, clean up the messes I can (others’ and my own), and see if I can move myself forward.