Monday, January 12, 2015

The Oppression of Owl via Nude Band-Aids

In the spirit of the New Year, Owl sat down to write something deep and meaningful. Owl looked at the blank page and pulled out Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie instead. Days later Owl emerged bleary eyed, determined to write about the truth of her own racial experience in America. The whole truth, nothing but the truth, so raw you could see the blood and guts glisten in the sunlight.

The problem was Owl wasn’t actually sure what the truth was.

When Owl was in high school, her English class was sent out to volunteer at inner-city charter schools where mostly Hmong and Hispanic students studied. Owl went to a ritzy private school where the students were mostly rich and mostly white. (Think about ten nonwhite students in Owl’s graduating class of 130). Volunteering was supposed to take Owl and her cohort out of their classrooms which featured solid oak floors and hip chairs with purple cushions and expose them to a Different Way of Life.

Think about it, Owl’s English teacher said, after one session. These students are very different. Imagine those little Hmong and Hispanic children walking around Wayzata. They wouldn’t fit in. People would probably point and stare and say, what are those kids doing here.

Wayzata was a well-to-do suburb where Owl went to elementary school. At the time Owl was the only non-white kid in her entire grade. (One of Owl’s grade school teachers explained to Owl’s class that they were very very lucky to have Someone Different like Owl in class. Owl was mildly flattered. She liked attention.) If Owl behaved, her mother would take Owl to the bakery for sweets. Owl had no recollection of people pointing and staring as she picked out her cakes. As far as Owl knew, she belonged.

Owl loved her high school English teacher. Her English teacher put up with Owl derailing class discussions to ask meandering questions about life, and told her to come in after class if she wanted to keep talking. Owl had no idea how you tell an adult you really like, who also has wields the power of grades, that they just said something offensive. Owl wanted to scream brown kids do belong in Wayzata: I was one of them.

Owl did the mature thing. She ranted to her friends. She used the r-word (racist) a lot. This was very undiplomatic of her. Owl’s school prided itself on diversity. Every month or so everyone would sit down and discuss it’s success at creating a diverse environment. In the spirit of diversity, the school paper even ran a story discussing inter-racial dating rates among students broken down by race. Owl doesn’t precisely recall, but she thinks the general conclusion was the minorities were bustin’ the hell out of interracial dating and the white kids needed to do a better job. Since there were about three Asian people in Owl’s grade, seven black people and one Hispanic person, Owl had some questions.

But she digresses. The take home point of these discussions was racists were people who existed in the past, and racism is something that white people do to black people and maybe Hispanic people. Racism does not exist between other races and it certainly didn’t happen on school property. Especially not among teachers. This sort of didn’t jive with Owl’s experience of family reunions. 
Owl’s family comes from all over the world, which means they love each other but maybe not each other’s countries. Like China and India? Some serious shit happened between those two countries. Owl’s father grew up thinking the Chinese would slaughter him in his bed. Sometimes Owl’s parents still have World War III and dinner devolves into an argument about whether India or China is better. Owl personally votes for dinosaurs.

At first Owl’s friends were supportive of Owl’s epic rants about Wayzata and ignorant teachers. But after the second week of non-stop ranting that could not be staunched with brownies, they began to get tired. It wasn’t that big of a deal, they said. People made mistakes. Hadn’t Owl ever said anything she regretted? Since Owl does that every day, she couldn’t argue, but she was still angry, even more angry perhaps, because she was being told her anger wasn’t nice.

Finally Owl wrote a long story featuring her English teacher’s bloody death, included a reincarnation so she could add another murder, and spent extra time describing the fountains of blood and considered it a closed chapter of her life. Nothing happened because everyone said nothing happened and so if Owl was the only one who remembered, did it truly matter?

As Owl got older the narrative changed from everything-is-peachy, to you-poor-thing. When Owl walked into her college counseling appointment, her college counselor congratulated her. “You’ve got racial diversity and socio-economic diversity going for you,” he said.

Owl did not understand. “Socio-economic diversity?” she asked.

“You’re…you know…”

Now, Owl was curious.

“On financial aid? A scholarship student?”

The last time Owl had checked she did not have a scholarship. She rather liked the idea of being a scholarship student though. Scholarship student meant smart. Owl was down.

Then she realized her college counselor didn’t mean smart, he meant poor. Owl didn’t quite know what to say because finances are not polite conversation, so she just nodded along and then had a horrible panic attack when she realized he was expecting college essays about financial hardship.

It didn’t stop there. In college Owl had to write a description of her parent’s bedroom (how’s that for a creepy homework assignment?). She wasn’t sure what to make of her professor’s reaction. Her professor marveled. “You just get the sense this room is so precious to these people and they’ve never had anything nice before.” After class she asked Owl all about her family and started talking about how it must have been hard on Owl to go to a private school where everyone lived in big fancy houses while Owl lived in a one bedroom apartment.

Owl was fascinated by her professor’s level of detail. All Owl had to say was her parents were immigrants and poof—her professor knew the rest of the story: fresh off of the boat, made it past Ellis Island, living in a tenement, wasting away from tuberculosis.

“You’ve got an interesting perspective,” the professor said warmly.

Unfortunately this left Owl in a nasty dilemma all semester. Write about her actual house, which has four bedrooms and was a pain-in-the ass to vacuum or write about the one bedroom apartment? Which house was real anyway? If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? If you live in a more expensive house than people imagine, but no one believes it, do you really live in that house?

It was all terribly confusing, but Owl knew this was part of the plight of being a minority. She knew this because a college friend had told her so. This particular friend had devoted a lot of time to studying minorities even though she was white, because she felt like minorities didn’t have enough of a voice in America.

Owl was for anything that meant she got more of a voice. “Tell me all about being a minority in America,” she told her white friend.

The friend explained. “There’s a whole narrative of subtle oppression. Like nude band-aids. Imagine how it feels to walk to buy nude band-aids that don’t actually match your skin tone. It’s terrible.”

Owl’s mind was blown. She’d never thought about nude band-aids before. Perhaps because she favored Snoopy band-aids. Or because band-aids don’t match anyone’s skin tone. Owl felt vaguely guilty for not being a more sensitive minority. Band-aids! How could she have failed to pick up on their subtle oppression?
“Also, if you’re a minority in America, it really messes with your confidence. Every time you walk into a room, you know you’re the only one of your kind and feel utterly alone.”

When Owl walks into a room she’s usually busy trying to calculate what she has in common with everyone else because the list of things that make her different…well, it’s long. Owl would have no friends if she was conscious of it all the time. Instead she goes for commonalities even if it’s a stretch. You’re German? My aunt is German she makes the best cakes ever. You’re French? One of my grad school besties is half-French and I spend most of my time scheming for invites.

Owl’s never thought, God, I’m the only Chinese-Indian here. Please bring in more of my kind. There have been moments when Owl’s conscious of being the only Chindian in the room, but Owl grew up in the Midwest. If she went into shock every time she was the only person of color in a room she’d be dead by now. [Owl is full of compassion for anyone who does feel that way and supports their right to feel that way, she's just saying it's not her experience as a minority.]

Owl realized she had been doing the whole minority thing wrong, totally, totally wrong. Maybe she wasn’t a minority. Or maybe she was a minority within a minority—the person who is being oppressed by band-aids but was too dumb to get it. Shit man, shit.

Owl is still sitting here trying to write about living race in America. She understands that she was never discriminated against, but also terribly oppressed.

Owl’s truth is bland. People at heart are good but not always aware. Lots of good people have done much for Owl. Lots of people have also said some really racist things. Sometimes these are the same people. Owl knows she’s slipped up. Mostly she wishes it was possible to sidestep the terrible weight of history in favor of honest conversation. She wants a world where you can go out for ice cream and talk about what’s offensive and what isn’t without blame and then forgive and move on. It’s a truth seems small and unworthy of writing compared to all the other narratives Owl had been told about her life.

Owl feels oppressed.

1 comment:

  1. Late to the game with this one, but so glad you're blogging again. This was great. For my part, I've really appreciated the conversations we've had about race (& gender), both the ways you challenge me and the tolerance you have for my f*ups. Now email meeeeee, or even better, come visit.