It's a numbers game (?)
Updated: Jun 8, 2020
Sometimes it’s really nice to be part of the majority. Sometimes, as was the case for me this past weekend, moments like that leave my head spinning for days in a daze of pensive angst about the world, this city and my place in it.
This weekend I participated in my first People of Color Conference for educators employed at private schools from across the country. The annual conference is hosted in a different city each December and the 2019 edition was in the heart of downtown Seattle. People estimated approximately 7,000 educators and students were at the conference.
The word that first comes to mind when I think back to looking around at the other attendees during the exuberant opening speaker was ‘uplifting’. It was not for what she was speaking about or even her forceful rhetoric. Instead, it was letting my eyes jump from brown and black face to more brown and black faces. The massive exhibition hall was filled with people who looked like me and even if they didn’t, they were all colors of the ethnic rainbow.
It took me about an hour for my eyes and mind to adjust to being back in a building in which I belong to the majority. It doesn’t happen very often for me, especially in the soggy confines of the predominately white Pacific Northwest. The last time it happened was when I visited Colombia last December. For all the progressive praise local leaders heap on themselves, this region remains one of significantly deficient Members of Melanin.
And so, the People of Color Conference was an invigorating spectacle, filled with so many ideas, exchanges of interesting experiences inside and outside the classroom, so many people to network with. There were countless inspiring workshops, lectures and so many……………….…white people.
If you find yourself with slightly raised eyebrows and/or scratching your head right about now, you’re not alone. There is an increasingly fierce debate within those who regularly attend that a conference specifically designed to be a space for educators of color should remain simply that: a conference by and for educators of color. The argument is that because white people belong to the majority across the country and especially in the education sector, they don’t need to attend the conference.
Furthermore, many attendees of color claim white people already have access to every space in the country by virtue of their privileges as the ethnic majority. Why should they have a role in this conference too, especially when there is a conference for white educators focused on how to be better allies with/for educators of color? Another question posed by many at the conference was, “why are we spending time grappling with each other over white fragility…at our People of Color Conference?”
If you’re currently unaware of what this term “white fragility” means, I invite you to look it up (regardless of how you identify ethnically). If you identify as white and are having reservations about looking it up, I invite you to ponder why that may be.
Interestingly enough, I caught myself battling my own white fragility on a few occasions during the conference. While I do not identify as a white man (nor do I want to), I still have white parents and grandparents I love very much, as well as numerous white friends I would do anything for. I thought about how they would react if they were in the room when frustrated attendees asserted they wouldn’t return to the conference if it remained “just another place for us to not be ourselves because we’re too preoccupied with white tears”.
It reminds me of a dream I had almost two decades ago as a sophomore in my very, very, very white high school. In the dream, I woke up and walked slowly to the bathroom, turned on the lights and in the mirror a white face was staring back at me. It was MY face, but white. In the dream I was shocked, and the next scene was sophomore me walking into school and my friends being puzzled as to how I knew their names. They saw me but thought I was a new student and wanted nothing to do with me, even as I pleaded to sit with them at lunch. Then I woke up. I was terrified I had somehow become white and jogged to the bathroom to make sure I was still me.
Why was I so scared? That is the question I asked myself for weeks after that dream all those years ago. I said nothing to anyone about it. And now, after the amazing experience at the PoCC conference, I wonder why a part of me felt almost offended when someone cracked a joke concluding their remarks in a smaller space by saying, “…and down with white people.” The room vibrated slightly with a collective giggle before someone else spoke, but it was interesting for me to observe.
“Most white folks just don’t get it”, someone else sighed. Various affirming nods dotted the room again. My question here has to be: what exactly is IT? In the context of the conference, was “it” an authentic understanding of the experiences of people of color in educational settings? In general settings everywhere? How are white educators and people in general supposed to work towards productive empathy if they can never have similar lived experiences as people of color? It seems unrealistic to me, even if they attend all the workshops, read all the blogs and have a few friends who identify as __________ or ___________.
And yet, I admit I’m one of the conference attendees who feels the People of Color Conference should be exclusively for us. The speakers, the workshops, the presentations and the general dialogue seemed to tiptoe around eggshells many of the times. The only space I felt was free of that tiptoeing was my affinity space.
The transracial adoptee affinity space had approximately 50 educators from around the country, all of them adopted by mostly white parents. Some were adopted domestically and some of us were originally from other countries. It was nothing short of uplifting to be in that space with all of them. One of the most interesting conclusions that arose within that space was that our affinity group was likely the only one in the conference (besides the ‘international’ affinity group) that didn’t have a collective similar look. I mean, none of us adoptees really looked alike as was the case with other affinity groups like the African Americans, the Latinx/Hispanic/Chicanx or the Asian/Pacific Islander groups just to name a few.
Another topic that came up in conversation within the transracial adoptee affinity group was DNA testing. I have much to say on the topic, but for that you’ll need to wait for the next blog entry which will come directly from Cali, Colombia in a few weeks. I’ll be down there for two weeks spending time with my biological family and friends, as well as some new people who are directly related to the epilogue in I Met Myself in October.
You’ll want to stay tuned because the events that will unfold in the coming weeks might force me to add another chapter to the memoir!
Thank you for your continued support. Gracias.