Thursday, April 16, 2020

More Than a Bystander

Continuing a series of posts contextualizing the issues in my newest book, More Than a Bad Teacher, here's a tough story from the early 90s. My perspective on these events has changed many times over the years. But change has accelerated recently. When I listened to the Scene on Radio podcast Seeing White, episode 11 titled "Danger," it really stood out to me. The host, John Biewen, recalls an encounter he had in a "rough part of West Philadelphia, in 1986." It might be helpful to read the transcript of that podcast episode. Biewen tells his story much better than I tell mine, but both are what I've come to recognize as common white people stories. The fodder for our perpetual privileged white person confirmation bias.

When I was eleven-years-old, my family took a trip to Flint, MI. My sister was looking at colleges and an interest in electrical engineering took us to the campus of the General Motors Institute or GMI.

Well, almost.

It was exciting for me to journey so far from home. Until this moment, the farthest I'd been from rural southwestern PA was a visit to a family friend in Indiana. And Michigan wasn't a greater distance, but it was at least a different direction. Also, we were going to stay in a hotel! With a pool!

11-year-old girl wearing huge glasses seated for a school portrait wearing an unfortunate plaid shirt.
A school photo from the early 90s.
We drove into Flint under a bright sky. The car rumbled over the brick street and everyone commented on how beautiful the town was. And how empty. There were no pedestrians. Very few other cars. It was strange, but also attractive as my aversion for crowds clearly comes from both nature and nurture.

We got settled in our big, high-rise hotel, a much fancier place than we'd ever stayed in before. My family didn't take many vacations. After looking over our accommodations, Mom and Dad wanted to take a walk. See the sights. We headed out the front door of the hotel.

At the time, I wore a Milwaukee brace for scoliosis. It had a hard plastic part that went around my waist and hips. Three metal bars held my spine straight.

We walked in a tight foursome. Most likely me and my dad in front. My mom and sister behind. Parents always on the street side. For safety. We probably held hands the whole time, but definitely always when crossing the street.

We weren't far from the hotel when we heard a boy yell, "get the F- out of our way." A bunch of boys, a little older than me, raced by on their bikes. They got about 100 yards ahead of us and threw their bikes down in the sidewalk and headed into a store. 

Man in red sleeveless shirt and jeans wearing a red bandana fitting stones into a wall.
"The man" circa the early 1990s.
My family kept walking. We passed the pile of bikes. Stepped around them strewn about the concrete. We made it about a block before again hearing, "get the F- out of our way." And the bikes came flying by. This time, one of the boys ran the handle of his bike into my side.

I was sort of like a turtle in that scoliosis brace. It was a protective shell that only partially covered my very soft torso. The bike handle missed the hard plastic and went right into a soft place. I staggered and said, "oof" or something. My dad was livid.

He confronted the boys in the street. He must have yelled something at them. The boys stopped their bikes. There was posturing between my dad, a forty-one-year-old white guy, and four or five black boys. I remember my dad roaring, "you know what they call me back home? They call me the man."

It was utter nonsense.

There were people in the shops watching this unfold. I remember their faces through the window. I remember knowing they weren't going to come and help us. And at the time, I felt like that was some great injustice.

My parents don't sleep well in hotels. They were awake and searching for an ice machine in the night which led to the discovery that only two floors in the whole giant hotel were finished and livable. Every elevator stop except for our room and the swimming pool were gutted and in various stages of construction. The elevator doors would open to thick sheets of plastic and hanging wires. My mom thought it looked like the set of a horror movie.

We left Flint in the middle of the night. My parents didn't stick around for my sister to see the GMI campus. They told her she'd have to go to college somewhere else. Flint wasn't safe.

Back at home, we heard about Michael Moore's documentary, Roger & Me. In 1992, it was tough to find in Washington, PA where we traveled to do our shopping. We ended up at a new video store because it was the only place that carried the VHS cassette.

We learned about Flint, though the immediate lesson we took from it wasn't the right one. My parents hated Ronald Reagan and adored Jimmy Carter. They'd also raised their kids in an overtly racist rural place in Pennsylvania. As the credits of Roger & Me ran, we knew that if we'd seen the documentary before our trip, we'd never have gone there. It isn't safe!

All of that with an undercurrent of Flint as a place that's far away and definitely not our problem.

John Biewen reports telling his story about West Philadelphia for years and years, realizing now that it never had a point. At least not a good one. " I’ve told it over the years," he says, "I’m the one in danger."

Like John, I remembered Flint as a moment when I was in danger. My dad protected me. People in stores looked on and did not come to my aid. Our family was lucky nothing bad happened.

I see now that we weren't the vulnerable parties on that Flint, MI sidewalk. We were four white people with an up by our own bootstraps narrative, but when it comes down to it, as John Biewen quite eloquently put it, we "...lived in a country designed from its beginnings, and ever since, to keep [some] of us safe, to help [some] of us thrive, to give [some] of us choices."

And the bystanders in those shop windows were watching to protect those boys from us. 

That trip to Flint stuck with me all these years. I've revisited those memories over the course of learning what it means to be a white woman in America. A white woman in Pittsburgh. A white woman that's just as self-segregated as an adult as she was as a child in that racist rural countryside.

All this brings me to the reason for rehashing these memories rather than letting them fade. My changed perspective on Flint and white America fed right into More Than a Bad Teacher. I've attempted in this book to write about white America.

I have a theory, surely not of my own making, that white people aren't happy. There are scripts and uniforms and a life plan for white people in this country, but it's become so narrow that not many of us fit in anymore. Sexual identity and mental illness and even anti-racism are cause to eject people from the assimilated white person club. The sense of belonging white people seek is attainable only by participating in a very narrow set of activities. We are (to loosely quote Ibram X. Kendi or maybe Robin DiAngelo or the Seeing White podcast) drowning in our own whiteness. 

The family in my book is drowning in whiteness. They are coping with the toxicity generated by living in a community that believes itself to be what is normal, what is right, what is good. It's only when their own daughter is victimized by a classmate that they begin to look around them and wonder if they're so good and normal and right, how did this even happen? And what is there to be done about it?

Like the family in my book, I'm challenged by what action I can take now that I "see white." The protagonist of the book is a teacher, so she changes the way she teaches. For now, I'm just hoping to help someone else understand the world around us.