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08 November 2008

Unexpected. [More:]

When Obama took the stage Tuesday night at midnight to give his acceptance speech, I was moved to tears. I was so pleased and so relieved. Not that I thought McCain was a bad person or anything, I just felt Obama would be that much better for the country. I believed, and continue to believe, in his intelligence, good judgment, and good intentions.

Teaching in a high school in the Bronx, I looked forward to sharing in what I expected to be a celebratory mood. It wasn't quite what I expected. Several of my students, who know me and have known me to be an avid Obama supporter all along (even when some of them prefered Hillary in the primary), "accused" me of being secretly for McCain. Now I can tell when they're kidding around; this was different. "You really wanted McCain, didn't you?" they'd ask, with suspicion in their voices.

Then, an African American girl and a Dominican boy got into a screaming match, complete with colorful epithets, about which was more important, the black vote or hispanic vote, in electing Obama. The young lady, who's generally very intelligent and poised, if tough to the core, insisted that 98% of the overall vote was black and that's why Obama won. I tried to clarify her statistics (% of a particular group's vote versus % of the overall vote), but had to settle for having her step into the hall for a few minutes to regain her composure, under threat of getting a dean. It didn't help that I had to give a reading assessment test that day. I later mentioned the exchange to the history teacher and thought perhaps he could pick up the discussion at some point in his class.

I'm afraid it gets worse. As I'm walking through the cafeteria, a petite African American girl from another of the schools in the building sees me coming off the elevator and starts chanting at me in an aggressive, in-your-face tone, "O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma..." I was taken off guard, to say the least, and I didn't know her, so I just kept walking. After, when I was talking to a friend in the office about the incident, I said what I would like to have said at the time: He's my president, too.

I realize they're still just children, but it all certainly left me shaken. I felt excluded from the celebration. Jon said there was no such divide at his job, but I can't help wondering what people might be feeling under the surface. I don't like thinking that.

The sourness is already fading. Every time I hear Obama I'm as delighted as I ever was. I'm just going to shake these experiences off as residual bad feelings, leftover from literally centuries of racism against African Americans (mild responses, come to think of it, given our history). One of my seniors, when I was talking about it with my AP class, where we're reading Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (deliberately timed), said her brother was "getting it, too." Apparently, he was in Harlem and some people were taunting him and wearing t-shirts with the slogan: N--, this is the White House, not the Black House. (How anyone had the nerve to say or wear that in Harlem, of all places, I don't know. Not that it's okay anywhere.)

I guess we still have a ways to go in this country. In the end, however, it diminishes nothing. Whatever your political leanings, Tuesday was a historic day, and I, for one, am still cheering.
Are these same kids just snotty in general? I would attribute this to assholish teenagers, not a race issue per se. I think the election just gives them a (weird) excuse to be jerks.

Jerkiness won't disappear overnight, and I don't blame minorities for still being cautious. Most whites did NOT vote for Obama, so there's no reason for minorities to feel like all the racial tension is now under the bridge. Most of the people who did vote for Obama probably weren't racist to begin with, though I have no doubt that some minds were opened up. I am very happy about this historical moment, and I do see it as a watershed, but then again, I'm white, and I can't possibly perceive it from their angle. I can only guess that it might tempt me to say "Ha! We finally won! Up yours!" for a brief moment.
posted by desjardins 08 November | 12:14
I don't know how related this is, but it's kinda related. I was getting on a bus to Harlem (where I live now) and the bus driver was black. An older white woman who has one of those fancy walkers with the hand breaks got on the bus after I did, but more importantly, after this young woman in a wheelchair did. (I asked her friend if she'd forgotten to pay and the friend said [kinda snottily] that people in wheelchairs don't have to pay. I just looked it up on the website just now and it says there's a reduced fare program, but not a free fare program.)

Anyway, the walker-woman started asking questions of the young woman in the wheelchair, saying how she looked good for being in one, how brave and strong she was or something like that and I felt so embarrassed for the woman in the wheelchair because she kinda sounded condescending to me. And after that woman left, she started talking to the bus driver, asking him how he felt about Obama's victory and she started talking about how she doesn't like how he wants to clean things up in Afghanistan because she's a Buddhist and I wanted to cringe even more because in my head, I was thinking, "Hey, lady! Why are you being so goddamn condescending? If you have to talk to people on the bus, can you not have it be conversation topics that are just too damn obvious that you are trying to feel better about yourself as a white person?"

Funny; I forget that I'm a member of a minority group at times like this.
posted by TrishaLynn 08 November | 12:31
I think it is an asshole-kids thing more than anything else. I didn't see anything like that at my job, and I haven't heard from anyone else, either. None of my friends teach, which makes me think this bizarreness is restricted to, well, people who weren't old enough to vote.

It's just odd since you're in NYC- didn't it go to Obama by something close to 80%? There would have to be a whole lot of people of all races voting for him to hit that amazing margin.
posted by kellydamnit 08 November | 12:33
Most whites did NOT vote for Obama,

Well, I suppose technically it wasn't a majority of whites in the country as a whole, but according to the NY Times Exit poles website, 43% of whites did vote for Obama, which is, of course, a sizeable number of people. He certainly could not have gotten elected with minority votes alone.

I think y'all are right about the jerkiness. I've been at my school going on seven years now, and I haven't experienced much of this before. Still, it was disheartening. I'd like to say it had no effect, but I'm only human. And the antagonism I see on a daily basis between Aftrican American and Latino is very real. I'm not trying to generalize here, but there's no denying there's a problem. I actually had one Dominican young man proudly declare how he'd never date a girl "darker" than himself. His views are not isolated.

I don't pretend to know what all this means. It just was a weird day in a weird week.
posted by Pips 08 November | 12:54
I think tensions have been so high during the entire race that they're not really going to disappear overnight. My college roommate used to talk about having an "after the ball" feeling -- that little-kid-day-after-Christmas-type feeling where you've been keyed up for so long and filled so full of sugar and stimuli that when it's over you feel all cranky and disoriented and exhausted and empty and grumpy, and you almost want to pick a fight just to get some excitement back. I kind of expect that's going to keep popping up for a while, kind of a national political hangover.
posted by occhiblu 08 November | 13:19
Sometimes people act out. I called Alderman Preckwinkle's office here in South Side Chicago and got corrected in a nasty way over the pronunciation of a name. I felt like I was in a hit-and-run, like, "did that just happen?" What did I do to deserve that? Nothing. What does that person in the office know about what I do, feel, or believe?

You didn't do anything to deserve what was said to you.
posted by halonine 08 November | 13:52
I'm thinking tensions are part of the culprit as well. My kids (i.e. in the program I run) reported rampant racism both anti-black and anti-white. One read a text she'd gotten that said something like "If Obama doesn't win, take the next m-fing white person you see and hit them in the m-fing face!" Another girl experienced a young man talking about the t-shirt he was going to make that would say "N___ Please! It's the WHITE house, not the BLACK house!"

Ugh. I showed them The Children's March and we talked about it and how it applied today. They talked about their experiences as black, latino, asian, and queer. It was really a heartwarming way to address the issues.
posted by Stewriffic 08 November | 14:24
Thanks, folks. I was feeling pretty depressed there, like I'm just wasting my time, like my students hate me no matter what. But I know that's an overreaction on my part. (I want 'em to hate me cause I make them work so hard, not cause I'm white -- sort of white... Jewish, to me, is only sort of white.) It helps just to talk about it anyway. Even good days aren't easy days at my job. I still think it's worthwhile, though. There are a lot of great kids, and I shouldn't let a few students poison things, or even some vented frustration on the part of some otherwise good kids. Teenage-jerkiness (I certainly know how I was at that age) and long, drawn-out tension sounds about right.

In the meantime, there's Jamesons and Pepsi (fucking Pepsi, I hate Pepsi, but that's all I have as a mixer, goddamnit, two pepsis from the fucking Chinese place). And some good movies. I just watched this one called Descent, about a rape victim taking revenge. I must say, I guessed how she was going to take revenge. I didn't realize Rosario Dawson was in it. She's excellent, and so beautiful. Now I wanna watch Clerks II again. Maybe I'll wait till Jon gets home for that one.

(Don'tcha just love cranky, crazy old people on buses and subways, TL, no matter what the color. They liven things up so.)
posted by Pips 08 November | 15:24
I felt excluded from the celebration. Jon said there was no such divide at his job, but I can't help wondering what people might be feeling under the surface.

Honestly, everybody at work (and I'd estimate the staff to be roughly 35-40% nonwhite, to say nothing of the customer base at the selling counter where it's even higher) and people were nothing but thrilled across the board, high-fiving and everything. And I've seen racial tension before, crazy homeless guys threating buyers because he thought we wouldn't buy his books because he was black etc, and I sensed none of that. But hearing about Pips being made unhappy definitely makes me upset and angry, especially when I'd been so thrilled just before. But you don't let it poison you.

As for the kids, they're kids and difficult kids a lot of the time, anmd the Bronx is kind of isolated compared to Manhattan or Queens where there's far more interracial and i8nter-ethnic interaction (I'm not saying it's paradise or anything, but it's definitely different), so take that all into account and remember that we don't live in a perfect world.
posted by jonmc 08 November | 19:57
I'd like to say it had no effect, but I'm only human. And the antagonism I see on a daily basis between Aftrican American and Latino is very real.

Yep. It's amazing how widely that isn't known. Black vs Latino violence, racism, and other such things are very real. It partly has to do with ingrain cultural racism that stems from immigrants home countries (i.e. Latin America) to the classim/racism/know nothings attitude that is prevalent in the US. With huge economic inequality, inherent racism built into the social structure of the US and the fact that employment opportunities for hispanics and blacks are much more limited compared to whites and asians (the african-american unemployment level is now at 10.8%, hispanic at 8.8% while whites are at 6.1% and Asians somewhere in the mid 5), the ability for hispanics and african-americans to, in general, develop cultures that continue to struggle against each other makes my mind boggle. Currently in the new york senate, several hispanic senators are even threatening to leave the democratic party because the upper government jobs in New York are held by african-americans and they feel that hispanics will be marginalized during the upcoming sessions. And don't get me started on how both communities and the GLBT communities in California are starting to go at each other. Sheesh.

We really don't need to be even have to deal with the social and cultural oppression inherent in our euro-centric society. We have no problem doing battle against each other and marginalizing ourselves.
posted by stynxno 08 November | 20:01
Oh, (((pips))). I'd just put it down to the kids trying to work out their place in the world, and being shits while doing so. But people's feelings about race can be so tricky to negotiate, it's so hard to know if you're doing the right thing in response. Recently I've had to deal with a black Jamaican staff member refusing to work with a front-line manager from Africa, because they "sold my forefathers into slavery". Never mind the manager in question is from Zimbabwe, as far removed from the west African slave trade as possible while still being in Africa, and that it was 300-odd years ago - in the end I sent him on diversity training and had to tell him to suck it up and deal, but felt weird and a bit yucky telling someone the way they expressed their feelings about their history (as they perceived it) wasn't appropriate and they had to get over it. What the fuck do I know of anger over slavery? On preview, it's also a class/ opportunity distinction, as stynxo notes - but knowing and appreciating all of these factors doesn't change the hostility when it occurs.

Still, if it makes you feel any better - the peeps I've been in contact with here in London and elsewhere (except for my dad's first wife and her husband in California - he's a federal prison warden and they're very NRA-GOP-let's all suck Uncle Sam's dick and she loves Palin) have been absolutely-across the board-over the moon-ecstatic about Obama winning. It's a great thing.
posted by goo 08 November | 20:43
A lot of people are in for a world of disillusionment, especially if the dems keep their word about limiting executive powers.
posted by Ardiril 08 November | 20:58
Yes, I do love bus/subway folks, Pips. It does make a commute much more enjoyable. ^_^

Here, have a clip from the Daily Show that's relevant to this discussion.
posted by TrishaLynn 08 November | 21:25
It does strike me that, as far as the kids go, they are deep in a battle for dignity and turf, and are maybe in need of education to get this into perspective - education about how, historically, racial/ethnic infighting has been a sufficient distraction to keep the underclasses beating each other up while the majority dominant class continued to run everything. I don't know if your school is the place for that to happen, Pips, but certainly I'm not all that surprised that an upset in the racial narrative of the country should cause some bids for a rearrangement of social power.

I haven't witnessed anything unpleasant as a result of the election, but it's pretty white where I live these days. The worst are some cowed and salty McCain types.

Ultimately, I'd chalk the kids' behavior up to the fact that, you know, they're kids. Histrionic and concerned about relative status. The adults? It'll blow over.
posted by Miko 08 November | 23:44
they are deep in a battle for dignity and turf

Yes, this sounds right, too. It does feel like a kind of power struggle. Of course, watching the classroom scene in Richard Price's The Wanderers, it really wasn't much different when the Bronx had large Jewish and Italian populations. Seems basic to human nature. The struggle for elbow room, resourses, status. We seem comfortable in our divides. And yet, we can work wonderfully together, too, when we want to. It's like it's hard-wired into us, from the days of our most primitive ancestors. The coral, who work together to build those wonderful structures, and their close relatives, the sea anemone, who sting each other repeatedly for their place on the rocks. Forever this duality. (That's what you get for watching National Geographic.)

Thanks again everyone for your good thoughts and insights. I may be on survival mode for awhile in the classroom, but I'm sure I'll regain my old lively self soon. We'll be reading Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies next in my 11th grade classes (I have it on audio book, so they can listen and read along, which helps their fluency and, I must say, makes it easier on me), and later in the year, Elie Wiesel's, Night, giving us the opportunity to discuss a lot of important issues, I'm sure, (literature's wonderful that way), and the darker sides of such divides.
posted by Pips 09 November | 09:21
Your first paragraph in your last comment is beautiful, pips. :-)

I have a special place in my heart for angry teenagers and teenagers in general. Screaming in a person's face is just plain rude and obnoxious. I would have been upset.

Tensions are very high and maybe this kid got some momentary relief, and a feeling of redemption, by chanting in your face. I think your silence was the best way to handle it. For yourself and the girl.

Hang in there, pips. You're a great teacher.
posted by LoriFLA 09 November | 10:54
Those sound like great readings. Good luck opening up all these discussions in a really interesting year. I bet once things get less testy, you'll be an amazing and enriching guide for these kids through some important topics.
posted by Miko 09 November | 11:08
I've been thinking about this post for a couple of days. First, thanks Pips (and stew), for being a teacher.

I'm not around kids a lot, but I can certainly see how the chanting incident would get to you, no matter who it was coming from. I agree with Miko and others who chalked it up to being kids, and that the adults would get over it. We have too much work to do to waste energy on being pissed off about the election.

Part of me wonders if the whole racial thing is residue from pre-civil war. It's been passed on for generations, and people don't know anything else. Like kids in the middle east continue the violence, and kids in the southern/rural US get married immediately after high school and start families - that's all they know.
posted by chewatadistance 10 November | 07:43
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