I've been doing a lot of thinking about race, class, and how I fit into the world. In case it's not painfully obvious: I'm a white middle class 20 something from rural NH. There were 6 black kids in my entire high school, and we had a thousand kids. NH is really, really white. My parents had no friends of color. None. My uncle is black, but we only see him about twice a year, and he's married to my dad's sister, who looks a lot like me.
So there is a lot
I don't know about African-American, and Island culture. Or really any other culture, but I'm focusing on what is an issue *now* I work at a Place That Shall Not Be Named, but it's teen girls who may or may not have done bad things and now can't leave until the court says so. About 90% of my girls are Black or Latina. (interestingly, the software I use to type my LJ entries at home didn't know that "Latina" is an actual word. Racism at work.) I took a class in grad school called Power Privilege and Oppression
, which focused on the disparities between the white majority culture and just about every other culture, and the importance of being culturally sensitive. I was in my shouty lesbian phase and was quite upset that they didn't spend as much time on sexuality and gender identity as they did on race and other cultural markers. There was a lot of defensiveness in that class, because we were pointed out and forced to face some really hard truths. Notably that most of the counseling profession is white, middle class, well educated women, and the vast majority of our clients are not.
I've learned a lot in the last 5 years. Sometimes the hard way, and with unfortunate and embarrassing race!fail moments.( usually having to do with my complete cluelessness related to black hair and it's relationship with water.) And what I've come away with is that I will never be able to understand a lot of what goes on in cultures that are not mine, and that I just need to be ok with that. That does not mean to say that I should not try to understand what is happening in the lives of my clients, and how their culture has affected them and influences how they interact with each other and with me and with the world. It just means that there is a set of things that are easily understood by my Black and Latina colleagues that I just don't get
. They are beyond explanation.
Which brings me to my pondering. I am one of 2 Caucasian staff on my unit. I am also the youngest person on the clinical/administrative staff. I am the only
one that grew up middle class and rural as far as I know. My culture is not their culture. I do not have the same cultural touchstones as they do. There are entire conversations that go on that I have no way of relating to. And that leaves me feeling very left out sometimes. My office mate, who identifies as black can get away with saying some incredible things to our kids that I would never in a million years dream of saying. The most memorable one was when she snapped at one of the kids who has been constantly plaguing her for attention while we were discussing something saying "grown folk are talking" and the girl just slunk away. I boggled at her after that one.
The other tricky thing is that since most therapists are white, many of my girls have an innate distrust in me to begin with, because they've had many negative experiences with helping professionals. The fact that I'm barely older than some of their siblings helps a little bit. But I'm yet another white helping professional in a situation over which they have no control. It gets really tricky when race issues come up between the girls. I had an insanely racist girl on the unit a few months back who was awful both to the kids and to our staff. I had the opportunity to model for her that people can get along nicely, and got to tell her honestly that I like working with most of my coworkers. Because I'm white I become the contact for the few caucasian girls who end up on the unit* who feel intimidated and/or outright uncomfortable being surrounded by women of color for the first time in their lives. And when the black girls begin to gang up on the white girls all hell breaks loose. I had one girl afraid for her safety after two others began making threats towards her and actually rushed her at one point, partly just because she's white and they're black. Oy.
* our count right now is 18, with 3 caucasian girls. That's a high percentage for us actually. Racism at work again: the white girls get way more chances through the courts than anyone else.
I'm stuck figuring out if I need to make more of an effort to understand and participate in Black or Latina culture, or if I should simply accept that there are going to be imponderables. Does accepting the existence of imponderables mean I'm not trying or am not culturally sensitive? Or does it mean that I am noting and respecting differences and maintaining professional relationships/friendships regardless? Does trying to understand and asking about things upset/offend people? I ask so that I can know, so that I can be helpful, or at least not clueless the next time a similar situation comes along. I also understand that by simply asking these questions I am inviting backlash, and that I am asking these questions from a position of privilege.