Kleshas and Tanhas

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Posts Tagged ‘Philadelphia

Too Cool For Whites

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“Hey mister,” a young squeaky voice cried out from behind me and to the right. I spun around, not sure that the words had been meant for me-after all, I hardly thought of myself as a mister, being only seventeen-and saw a black kid, perhaps ten, hopping off his bike and coming towards me. “Yea,” I replied. “What’s up?” “I betcha’ dollar I can tell you where you got ‘dem shoes,” the child answered. “I’ll take that bet,” I replied, confident that there was no way this child in front of me could really know where I had purchased my footwear…“You got your shoes on your feet, you got your feet on the street, on Bourbon Street, now give me a dollar.” Tim Wise, White Like Me pages 93-94

One of the subtlest of encounters occurred at Mercy Neighborhood Ministries when I least expected it. During the ins and outs of service, I infrequently come across the other half of the facility’s outreach: the students. MNM offers before and after school programs for a variety of age groups. Kids are the driving factor for me to commit myself to community service on a long term scale. As the initial factor that led me to get involved after my freshman year, Camp Holiday Trails, a summer camp for kids with chronic illnesses, had me hooked on the first day. Even before that instance, volunteer work at the Special Olympics throughout middle school instilled this pull to the youth. There’s considerably more energy in kids in a camp or athletic setting. So if it wasn’t known before, there was a heartbreak when I recognized that that energy would not exist on the other side of Mercy Neighborhood Ministries.

Every time the preschool-aged students trickle by our doors, I wave fervently for no reason other than hoping to receive a reciprocated, equally energetic wave back. Just a quick glimpse of that long lost energy is enough for me. Never have I been disappointed; the over-exaggerated wave has always been answered. Until there was this incident…

It was like any other day at MNM; the sun was either shining through the skylight windows or it was pitch black from the clouds. I could be wrong in claiming normalcy for that day, though, since I distinctly recall that on this day, the clients were dipping pretzel sticks into melted chocolate. I designated myself as the transporter of dipped sticks from the dipping station to the freezer to remove myself from the clients’ prodding to partake in the ecstasy. This could’ve easily been the first time I almost struggled to keep up with the pace of the older clients! Vivacity.

In these trips, from dipping station to freezer, I had about a forty-five second travel time through the hall, into the kitchen, and back. It must’ve been on the second or third trip that I came across one of the preschoolers, alone. I’m not sure how he got free from the bunch, (nor am I sure if I should be portraying MNM as incapable of keeping track of their students) but there he was in the hall.

Maybe it was the excitement over melted chocolate and the rarely high energy level with the older clients that caused me to wave to him in an uncool manner. Nevertheless, all I got in return was a nod as he swagged on by, evidently on a mission of sorts. I didn’t really digest the rejection of a wave until my next trip to the freezer: “He just nodded me off!” With my slow processing of all the racial lingo and themes that we’re discussing in Race and Racism -which I would have to add, has kept me from producing a reflection worth reading- the word “hegemony” slowly crept into my mind. Something going along with Frederick Douglas’s double consciousness and the veil has formulated in retrospect. The little boy, to my surprise, reacted as a result of some shade of racism.

Let me first explain what the nod signified in my book. A nod typically ranks low on the list of acknowledgements and greetings human beings bestow on one another. Above it comes a smile, maybe then a hello, next a handshake, finally a hug (or kiss.) A nod has no transmission of emotion. It very easily can become a means to look someone off or even denote them as not worthy of a higher greeting. I am making the claim that this young boy was at fault of this as absurd as it might seem. But hear me out!

In staking another claim that hegemony, in other words, the boy’s relationship to me was somehow marred by my race (or more simply, my age,) I am trying to draw out my surprise at how young this black student was. Specifically, someone so young was already viewing the world through Douglas’s veil; this came to me as a shock. This kid was no more than three feet tall, wearing Timberland boots, and had his hair in cornrows.

A third -maybe the most absurd- claim was that this individual’s double consciousness clearly established him as black, me white. He knew he had some sort of power over me in a similar manner that Tim Wise’s encounter with the Tulane native in the passage above. This power, if not apparent in my story, is the same that leads many whites to feel uncomfortable when blacks, and even more so, whites use racial slurs. In reading the word “nigger,” one would think, “You, the white writer, shouldn’t be using that word.” The answer to the question why is the uncomfortable power that blacks possess. Why else is there such a word as “wigger?” There’s some sort of (unattainable) power blacks hold that pop culture easily interchanges with cool, or maybe a more timely word: swag.

So maybe I am reading too much into this two second encounter with a five year old like Tim Wise throughout his narrative. But maybe, just maybe, this is an example of how early hegemony formulates in a young black’s mind. Me on the other hand; I must’ve not come into contact with a black individual who I interacted with frequently enough to deem friend until I was in middle school. So if my three claims are preposterous, at least I can vouch for my own belated awakening to my white ignorance…

Written by Jack Viere

March 14, 2012 at 9:30 pm

When the Cloud Bursts

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I realized there’s no reason for me to live on the East Coast after my Winter Break. If my interests alone could determine where I’d reside, I would be somewhere along the Pacific Ocean. Yet, as I drank in the 70 degree weather on New Year’s Day, I felt a pull back home. Home exists somewhere between Virginia and Pennsylvania. If our personal entities could be categorized into body, heart, soul, and mind, college has easily captured my mind and body. Heart seems like it will always reside with my family. And soul; I could not figure out where my soul was when I looked out over the ocean as the sun set.

I had an unexpected encounter in the West with something I have placed into my mind and heart; the homeless. It’s quite a luxury when you can devote certain energies to different activities in your life. I hadn’t realized that I assumed my vacation would lead me away from any scenarios that seemed to exist in my college life. My college life, as I said, consists of my mind and body. Through community service, heart finds its way into my personhood. Apparently heart has also found a way out of it as well. Via selfishness.

The several-hour plane ride to vacation-land is boring. Why? Well, our minds are not entertained as thoroughly as we please. And in this momentary lapse of our mind’s functioning, we lose any responsibilities we had hoped to rid as we embarked on our self-indulgent vacation. The jetlag -an indicator of how far you’re willing to escape your duties- dulls us to the point where on entering the new airport, we encounter a sense of adventure. Even among all the pavement, architecture, and pre-existing community, we prepare ourselves to conquer our novel surroundings.

 

Immediately after exam week, I found myself in San Diego as if my work had earned me the right to kick back and relax. And kick back and relax I did; even to the point where I found other people making decisions for me –an oddity for the college student!

 

The sun sets on the West Coast with the same color I witness on the East.

As if I knew something about the homeless, I noticed that San Diego’s distinguishing characteristic was that its homeless were pushed to the water. My dream home would exist on the beach, so why not California? And as I jocularly thought where I’d place my million dollar home, I stumbled upon the homeless. I hate to admit it, but my first (internal) reaction was, “What? I thought I left this back home!”

 

Maybe Philadelphia does a better job of keeping its scenic sights (limited in comparison to San Diego’s –the Pacific is a winner take all!) free from the reach of the homeless. But as soon as I saw rag-tagged camouflage and trash bags, my vacation-illusion snapped. As I handed loose change from my pocket to distanced eyes, Philadelphia flooded my soul.

 

Mercy Neighborhood Ministries

To and from Mercy Neighborhood Ministries I encounter some display of economic evolution. Where do the employees of $7.25 and welfare checks live? When I saw an individual pushing a shopping cart, my soul took me back to the West; my mind painted a beautiful image of the beach; my heart felt the familiarity of my family; my body warmed by the omnipresent, perfect sun.

 

When I recognized the familiar faces as I walked through MNM’s doors, I experienced the same inner tumult from having my vacation-cloud burst. No one here had a vacation. The employees of MNM sure as hell worked hard for a well-deserved vacation. Where did they take it? What kept me from falling into a state of complete guilt were the new faces. That’s where my soul is. The potential. The growth. New faces meant new relationships, new stories. I found myself playing the same Rummy card game from San Diego with Mr. Lee. I still lose, whether I am playing on the East or West Coast.

Written by Jack Viere

January 29, 2012 at 2:45 pm

The Subtlety of Racism’s Pressure

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It’s been too long since my last post.
Something along the lines of San Diego, Winter Break, and the restart of the second semester is to blame.

There’s pressure on what my first post should revolve around; I had several ideas floating around. If there was ever the question why I write, it’s because I write better than I speak.  And nothing triggers my need to speak more than something controversial. Hence, I feel college has been a good fit thus far.

One of my new classes this semester is titled Race and Racism. To say that this class instills heated debates would be to jump the gun; not everyone feels a sense of urgency, or existence for that matter, of the pressing issue at hand: racism. Or at least that’s my perception. Maybe it has something to do with a unilateral student population from the East Coast, the Tri-state region especially. A like-minded people will never argue over anything more than minuscule details.

If anything, I feel that some of my earlier reflections portray my adaption – my integration – into a new lifestyle. This urbanized university living was no surprise to me. In fact, I ran to this idealized environment; history has always depicted specific regions as suitable for universities. The Northeast speaks for itself, boasting those Ivy League institutions of American antiquity. (This isn’t to ignore other universities from that same era, but let’s face it: they’ve been there for awhile and they seem to be doing something right if they’ve retained their prestige.) On a personal note, I felt like the Southern boy headed to the Big City for an education; whatever era that derives from best…

Here I am; writing the contrasts between home and, well, home. (That transition of the baby bird leaving the nest is still playing out to its fullest.) Community service in North Philadelphia makes me want to say things. And when the Tri-state student population is familiar to these findings I see so profound and foreign, the first thing off my tongue might not sound as polished and intriguing as my writing (hopefully) strives to accomplish.

So, what sparked my mind to the point where I had to write? Ah, Race and Racism.

I have never really cared too much about other people’s perceptions of me. For the first time, that has changed. Slightly. Speaking out against the majority in the classroom setting is enjoyable from time to time. You become the catalyst of the conversation; the limelight tastes so sweet. Sometimes your words formulate the opinions of others. (I’m not too sure about that, but anyone who’s been in class knows to steer away from the individual who is adamant about the topic at hand unless you have an equally valid point and wish to defend it wholeheartedly.)

Well, just my luck. The seemingly homogeneous majority of my class (if not everyone – oh, the persecution) must think I am a racist. Arguing about the basis of Martin Luther King Jr.’s justification civil disobedience is a dangerous choice of action. If you don’t know what that concept is, realize that arguing against a venerated (black) man two days after his distinguished holiday is a sure shot for being put on the short list.

I could re-open the discussion, but my initial point I want to make about the debate is that regardless of what I said, I was somewhat shocked that people would take such a fundamental pillar of civil disobedience for granted. Yes, the idea came from the Great and Might MLK Jr. who made incredible strides for the civil rights movement. But hold up. King was arguing for breaking the law. This caught my attention. Whether any of the points I was trying to make about how history does not justify legal wrongs from the past were right or wrong, it was bothersome to see that people would take words from a prolific man at face value.

West Roosevelt Boulevard, Philadelphia

This acceptance of history as the self-declared right is harmful, especially towards today’s racism. How? How is it that accepting MLK’s words at face value harmful? Well, for starters, no one was taking into account the historical context. Breaking the law is wrong. And I agree that King’s argument for when and how to break the law was right in the  1960s and was much needed. But when it was taken out of context and applied to other, non-historically-related contexts by some of my classmates, people began to realize that the justification for civil disobedience was not capable of being universally followed.

That being said, my argument is that this assumption that my classmates were initially making (or at least that’s what it seemed to me as I was standing alone apparently against MLK Jr.) cripples certain people’s views about today’s racism.

Is it nonexistent? No! Of course not! We’re not colorblind! Then how are we to ignore the 1 in every 15 black male who finds himself incarcerated? Why do we turn away from the idea that it’s difficult (for me) to find a middle-class African-American individual back home in the South while here, in Philadelphia, that’s been the way for awhile.

What I am trying to get at is that people like to say that they are 1) not racist, 2) not color blind, and 3) think they understand racism’s harms. (Writing this doesn’t say that I do-hence I am taking the class!) But I fear that if we talk about petty issues of affirmative action and employment issues and ignore the fact that certain socio-economic classes exist in certain areas, and not elsewhere, then we have yet to realize the harm we do to ourselves. We’re not talking about the same racism. The racism I see now, as of coming to Philadelphia, is that there is a gap between the prominent blacks and everyone else of color.  Those that are prominent lead the rally call to prove to those who think they care that blacks succeed in higher realms of employment consequently drowning out the unheard voices of the other socio-economic classes that are more likely to be subjected to discrimination. Especially in the realm of employment opportunities for those who work blue-collared jobs (and below,) no one wants to hear that there are still injustices that result from racial biases. (Facts, like the one above, do suggest that there is an issue at hand. Suggesting that there isn’t a problem is to be colorblind.)

In conclusion, even if my claims about life in Virginia seem exaggerated for effect (which could go unchecked since people seem to take things at face value,) my intent is that if one were to say that there is no racial tension, this will lead him to be passive and noneffective in his discussions or actions taken against racism. Another way of putting it is in closing your eyes, whatever you are shielding your eyes against still exists whether you accept it or not. So in nodding to MLK Jr.’s writings as the final solution that has still be enacted out by everyone is harmful. My classmates already proved that the circumstances of the 60s cannot be applied in every instance.

Thanks to my English course, I learned about an ancient philosopher named Boethius. “One of Boethius’s key ideas was that there is a great God who designs a far better plan for human beings than they could possibly design for themselves…according to Boethius, we should then not resist or fight against the troubles that come our way, but cheerfully accept the, trusting that in the end things will work out for the best.

So whether atrocities are committed against blacks (and other races, especially Hispanics) or not, are we to ignore the 1 in 15 and accept Boethius’s idea? It seems like quite a few of us do as we chide over Obama’s State of the Union Address…