Kleshas and Tanhas

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Posts Tagged ‘swag

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…

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Written by Jack Viere

March 14, 2012 at 9:30 pm