A Privileged White Doofus

In between reading for entertainment, I work on my education. See, I didn't receive much in the way of literature, sociology, or rhetoric in engineering school. I've had to do it by myself and now, I'm in a phase of reading literature on social justice. The most instructive, so far, is So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. I need to read it again so it'll really sink in. It's an important book. The book that was the most fun was Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell by W. Kamau Bell. There's nothing better than being educated by a comedian.

I've read quite a few books in the same vein by now. I feel compelled to keep reading. I'm not entirely sure what my questions about social justice are, really, but I'm only beginning to feel some answers. I usually let my need for particular books run its course. One time I read about twenty romance novels with barely a break for any other books in between. What the hell was that?

At least I understand one of my reasons. This trend of reading about social consciousness feels so compelling considering the way the underbelly of racism and xenophobia is so exposed in the United States right now. I can't tell you how many clips of racists yelling at people I've watched lately. How is it acceptable to behave this way?

Oh right, our president.

That isn't the only thing driving me. What do I still need to know?

For many years, I've lived in a racial vacuum. Where was the diversity, I wondered? My son's school system didn't even come close to being represented according to national populations of different races and religions. Why is that? What could I do from here? How could I do my part at easing racial inequities if I lived almost totally among the privileged whites?

As I read, I realized that I live in a segregated community, a privileged segregated community. I live in an institutionally racist system. Ugh.

And I, like the doofus that I am, tried to ask the one black friend I had what she thought about it. She hated it. She hated the question. I'm so sorry that I hurt her feelings. Even my earnestness was offensive.

That's the thing I'm still stuck on even after all my reading. I've always believed that asking questions helps make a way through difficulties. So, when I might offend someone by asking a question, I feel stuck. It's hard to even admit to you that I feel stuck. I'm so privileged. I know I am. But if we don't talk about it, how do we solve it? And if talking about it hurts our friends, then shouldn't we just shut up? I'm not good at shutting up. It's a conundrum, isn't it? Thankfully, there are many voices publishing books and maybe I can read my way through the problem.

I feel better equipped than I was, but I'm sure to be an idiot in the future, especially since there are so many ways for me to screw up when I open my mouth.

I listened to an African American poet speak a couple weeks ago and I loved her poem about a family reunion. But as I ran up to tell her so, I wondered if I was allowed to relate to her story, if there really was a similarity between hers and mine. Was I negating her black culture by relating? When I opened my mouth, I wanted to say I loved the part about the food and how people who hadn't seen each other for a year could settle right into gossip over a paper plate piled with three kinds of homemade pie. Instead, I stumbled over the words regarding our simple connection and pressed my knees together as if I had to pee.

It also stuck in my craw that African Americans were somehow excluded from the Women's Marches. Why? There are parallels between misogyny and racism, aren't there? Shouldn't we all fight inequality together? What happened there? I'm sure I read about it, but I'm not sure I really understand it.

Oh, I'm probably being a doofus just asking that question. The problem is that I'm probably being an idiot by writing about the books I've been reading to educate myself. But I want to ask what I should read next, what would finally nail the ideas deeply enough into my brain that I knew I could be kind in a conversation with an African American about race even if I couldn't possibly be cool.

I want to better understand this culture that exists right here in my country, a culture with which I have very little contact.

There's one more thing. I tutor children. It's a diverse group and it's my job to talk about brain development and language skills. Many of my students, kids whose English is as precise as my own, were born in other countries, China, Vietnam, India, and South and Central America. So when I'm trying to encourage them to listen for grammar or learn other languages, I often ask them if they speak any other languages and if English is a first or second language for them.

My point in asking is that if English is their native tongue, they can hear correct grammar without ever knowing what a gerund or a past participle is. It's more difficult if they learned English more recently.

And then, I wish them to continue to speak, read, and also write in their first language because of the effect on their brains. I tell them that I wasn't lucky enough to have learned a foreign language before I was twelve so that part of my brain does not light up the way it should. Theirs, on the other hand, allows them to pick up new languages much easier. Plus, multiple languages makes their career more attractive globally. Their parents love hearing that their children will be recruited more often with their added skills.

And I read in Oluo's book that I may be offensive to people of color by asking. And sometimes I see that in their faces when I begin the conversation. I hate insulting children.

So, I need to learn this. I need to get it right. I need to stop being a privileged white doofus and learn to ask the right way.

Do you have any ideas for me? Or should I keep reading and shut the hell up?

Thank you for listening, jules