My View

My View: The stories we’re given

August 13, 2013 


I puzzle over the all-capital-lettered sign at a rural intersection. I love the Harvard comma – I call it “comman” sense – but who needs punctuation when its absence is so promising? How can we swap before we meet? Are we meeting to swap prayers? Or are we praying together because, after all, these are antique bikes that are likely to strand us without warning?

The question can’t be answered, so I wonder on, as I often do in other arenas.

Students and leaders entered this year’s Seeking the Self camp full of questions and wondering. How else do you propose to seek the self? Organized by the fantastic Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate organization, the camp leads students on what feels like a five-day “Cannonball” run, from meet and greet to performance and exhibit. But instead of the race, we have races – Burmese, Latino and African-American. And the road toward positive identity development is full of unexpected detours.

We come into camp packed with questions, the most basic of which is: How do you navigate your story?

The first step is to acknowledge the world we live in and the stories, or stereotypes, we’ve been given. If at all possible, we befriend those stories.

So we ask the kids, “What are the stories our society gives you?”

We encounter all the usual stereotypes in the lists titled “White People,” “Asian People,” “Black People” and “Latino People.” White people who are skinny, rich, and clean – by the way, they eat salad. Asians who are good at math and look alike, and have names like Ching and Chang; they eat rice. Black people who are poor and not very smart; they eat fried chicken. And Latinos who are illegal immigrants, in gangs and become young parents – they drink a lot of beer.

We write these stereotypes on the board until it looks like a map of every train of thought in the county. We are even laughing. All of us have begun to make friends, with the words and with each other.

The campers then circle stereotypes they identify as positive. The White People list starts to look like cartons of eggs. The other groups? Well, here’s what the children expressed.

White People: “I guess stereotypes aren’t all bad. Rich. Powerful. Smart.” The Asian People shrug: “We’re neat and professional and play violin.” The Black People study the board: “Our skin doesn’t wrinkle. ... And we’re good at sports.” They re-read the list. “Look, we can dance!”

The Latino People speak last. “Yeah, stereotypes aren’t all bad. See, we’re hard workers!” They scan and re-scan the list for another positive feature. But finally, disheartened, they say, “Never mind.”

We don’t even need to talk with the kids about privilege or prejudice. It’s there on the whiteboard in black and brown marker. When asked what they’re thinking, one of the students says quietly, “I’m just stunned.”

It is as if they lived here their whole lives and never really noticed the scenery.

Stories, those stereotyped stories we are given, live in our bodies. And we have to locate where and what they are before we can navigate the trails to leave them behind. The next day brings a new question: “What are the stories your community gives you?” And in the air we breathe, local and homegrown, the stories abound.

It’s summer and I’m at Science Camp. The beds are lofted, with dressers underneath, and my roommate is talking on his phone, black ball cap on his head. I’m sitting on the floor, reading, when he calls over, “If you’re white, how come you don’t have a phone?”

I stop reading. “Because they cost too much,” I answer. “And I’m half Mexican.”

“Oh,” he says. “Never mind.”

The musty air of the van collides with the stinky sweat of the kids as we climb inside. The smooth leather, warm from the hot summer sun, feels like we’re climbing into a microwave. The kids fill each row, and I take a seat next to my friend.

Another campmate sits behind us. Loudly, she says, “We’re all piled up here like a bunch of Mexicans.”

I look at my friend and ask, “Did you hear what she said?”

We turn around. “That was racist,” we say. My face stiffens, hard as concrete, and my jaw tightens. I feel worthless, like a penny found on the street, not even worth picking up.

It’s late, and almost nobody’s around. We’re in the Food Lion parking lot and my brother’s car won’t start. We’re kind of worried. There’s a white guy walking our way so we go to ask him for help.

He looks at us and says, “You guys are a couple of drug dealers. You should go back where you belong; no one wants you here.”

Me and my brother decide to say nothing, just get away. I am wishing to just be invisible and my eyes are starting to burn, like fire ants biting me. They fill with tears so I close my eyes, and the tears roll down my cheeks.

These small wounds live in our guts and jaws and hearts – and in the guts, jaws and hearts of our children. Sharing them lessens their hold on us, even as it increases our hold on each other. We are halfway through the week at camp, and there is more to come: resilience, kindness and liberation will be part of the week. But for now, we are satisfied. We have, all of us different, met and swapped our stories. And so far – fingers crossed – we’re still along for the ride.

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