This is way too many posts for one day, and I can't claim any kind of expertise or great insight, but I didn't want to let the day pass without recognizing that it's Blog against Racism day. (Yes, I forgot until now, which is deplorable, but I still have almost 2 hours to make up for it.) This is my contribution. I'm afraid that it smacks largely of liberal-white-guilt, but I offer it up anyway.
I grew up in the north - in New England - a part of the world which likes to congratulate itself on its racial enlightenment. After all, we were on the right side of the Civil War! We were a hotbed of abolitionism! Nonetheless, my experience of the world was overwhelmingly white. I grew up surrounded by WASPs, Irish- and Italian-American Catholics, Jews, and people of French-Canadian ancestry. But there was only one black family in our town. I don't think anyone even thought of the kid from this family as different, in a weird way, because he was the only local black student. It was kind of like, "Well, Susie has freckles, and Jim has really curly hair, and Frank is black." It was hard to know what to make of his blackness in isolation, given that he was as immersed in wealthy New England suburban culture as any of the rest of us. (I'm sure that's not what it was like from his perspective. But that's the way it looked on the outside.)
There were, however, more African-American students in the local school system, because we had a busing program, and there were quite a lot of African-American kids whose parents made them get up at the buttcrack of dawn in order to get the bus and ride for an hour or so before arriving at our historic and gracious suburb. These students seemed very different from Frank - urban, and not preppy (during a time when prep ruled in my part of the world). I don't remember any ugly experiences or overt tensions with these students, but the thing that most seemed to define them was the table where they sat in the cafeteria: the "METCO kids table" (METCO being the busing program). I have no idea what it was like to go through high school defined by being a METCO kid. I used the label because it was the label that was there; it meant little to me. Again, that was probably different from the other side. (Frank was not a METCO kid.) One of the METCO kids was my great friend Omar, whom I ran into, sometime in college, when I was at the airport flying off somewhere or meeting someone or seeing someone off - he was working as a baggage handler.
Moving to the south has been an interesting experience. I don't buy the idea that the north is free of prejudice or somehow "better" than the south, but the racial tensions here are different. For one thing, this is a very, very poor place. Watching the coverage of Katrina, it was very clear that if a similar disaster hit this town, the results wouldn't look very different.
And if disaster did strike, I would not be one of the people wading through water up to their chins or climbing out holes in their roofs - I would be someone who had trotted off in her car and found a hotel and used one of her myriad credit cards to tide her over. Someone who could call on family for help if necessary, because her family has enough to share.
I don't want to turn this into some kind of guilty-white-liberal whine, but for me, as for so many other people, the images of Katrina made visible to me the hidden but very solid barriers composed of class, race, and history that create divisions in our society.
At the same time, moving to the south has also helped me think about how many different ways there are for race to play out, historically. Given the history of my current hometown and its surroundings, race in this part of the world seems to mean blacks and whites. Oh, there are Asians, Hispanics, and even some Native Americans in the general community. But the overriding concern is how to negotiate the relationships between black and white - which I think is typical of the way race is discussed in this country.
But this leads to one of the things I miss about Rural Utopia - working with Native American students. The school had a significant population of Native American students, partly because there were a number of Indian reservations in the general vicinity. This was NOTHING like growing up in New England, where (at least when I lived there) Indians were invisible, a historical force relegated to the past. The Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, Indians brought food to the first Thanksgiving, and then they just mysteriously....vanished. When I first moved out to Rural Utopia's part of the world, I was flabbergasted to see Indian reservations on the maps. I knew a woman who'd also grown up in the northeast, who said when she first moved to the region she walked around certain areas wondering, "How did all these Pacific Islanders end up here?" before she realized that, duh! they were real. live. Indians). It seems to me a particular brand of racism to erase the existence of one race in favor of overwhelming concern with another. (Let me clarify that I do NOT mean by this that African Americans are being racist by being concerned with the racism they encounter. Instead, I just mean that the kind of binary thinking with which we often seem most comfortable flattens our understandings of race in a way that does no one a service.) In this way, working at Rural Utopia was incredibly educational to me, and held a dynamic that I really miss now.
Having moved to my current institution does make me uneasy sometimes. What is the role and responsibility of any one individual in the context of broader social structures? I think it was Emma Jane of Barely Tenured who once said something about worrying whether or not working where she did meant she was merely replicating white privilege. (My apologies if I've misattributed this.) I worry about this, too. A lot. In a largely (though of course unofficially) segregated city, my institution is overwhelmingly white. Colleagues have told me that when African-American prospective students tour the campus, current African-American students tell them not to come here. Over Halloween we had some problems with racially insensitive costumes. More troubling to me, such incidents are never discussed openly. At Rural Utopia, for instance, someone once tore down the Gay Pride flag during Pride Week. As soon as this was known, the college's Head Honcho was on the faculty-staff e-mail list describing what had happened, denouncing it, and promising to investigate thoroughly and punish appropriately. I don't think the culprit was ever found, or if s/he was, his/her identity wasn't announced (which is probably appropriate). But to acknowledge openly that such things had happened, but were not acceptable, sent a very clear message - one quite different from my current school's desire to spread a pretty veil over all such events and pretend that they've never happened.
I don't have any great unifying conclusion to this post or any constructive calls to action - rather, this is a random collection of thoughts and snapshots in my head. They're about racism, but not about what it's like to experience its negative effects, something I can't say I've ever experienced. I guess really this post is about the ways in which I feel complicit in perpetuating racism. I'd let it sit and come back and polish it - but then it wouldn't be Blog against Racism Day any longer. So I'll let it go as it is.