SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2014       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Lisa Lacouette

Obscenely White

I was nervous about being in Harlem because I thought it was a “dirty and dangerous” place. I don’t believe I would have gone there on my own if not for a high school class field trip. New York City has always been a melting pot’s melting pot. The diversity of the United States is best represented in this one city. But living not far from the city in 1984 represented the opposite of diversity for me.


I grew up in upper middle class Long Island, New York. My parents held moderately liberal viewpoints. I visited New York City with them weekly for much of my childhood and I remember questioning my parents about the people I saw who “looked different” from myself, but I accepted the fact that The City was filled with all kinds of different people. My own community was another story. There, daily life was obscenely white.


I had stereotypical expectations of a school in Harlem. Now I was going there on a day trip with the students from my social studies class. I would be face-to-face with those kids. My class was studying the different social, architectural, and psychological aspects of Manhattan and once per week we would travel together on the train into The City to experience a different area or attraction. We took the Long Island Railroad from our affluent urban community into the heart of Manhattan, then the subway to Harlem. Standing outside the gray high school building on the litter free upper eastside sidewalk, the surprises were just beginning. The streets and buildings were remarkably clean for an inner city neighborhood. The high school was beautiful. The huge brick building was just as modern, clean, and well equipped as my own. My classmates and I were each paired with a student and we were supposed to follow them through their day’s class schedule. My student partner Shonda, was wonderful, kind, and welcoming. 


“What did I just see? I am walking through the hall to social studies and I see these two white dudes. What the fuck was that? I don’t remember anyone saying anything about white kids coming to our school. They looked pretty tight, nice clothes, must be rich. They can’t live here. What building did they move into? They didn’t look like they’re related. That means two families. Fuck man. What the hell is going on?”


What struck me the most was the feeling of being so different from everyone around me.  Walking through the halls and sitting in classes, I was the complete focus. I was the alien, the curiosity. For the first time in my life I was the minority. Was this part of what it felt like to be black in a white world?


“Now I see a white girl in my social studies class. She looks scared. The teacher said she is part of a group from a high school in Long Island. They’re here with a class that learns about The City. I’m sure these white kids can learn plenty about what it’s like to be us. One day don’t make you black man, or poor. They don’t know. They’ll never know.”


I couldn’t help but be moved and compare my experience (in a very small way) to the black people who endured the racism in the 1950’s and 60’s. I wanted to understand how it felt to be different based on the color of my skin but I was also very afraid of how I would be treated.


“So I talked to her. She’s not bad. She was pretty excited to talk to me and my friends. She said her social studies teacher is a pain in the ass too. She’s cool I guess. I’m still not sure why they came but I guess they’re ok.”


I had built up some anxiety over my expectations of what I was walking into on this trip to an all-black high school. What surprised me was the kindness and respect with which the sutdents treated us. They did not look down upon me. They welcomed me.


The students behaved exactly like those I left in my own school. Laughing and chatting, the kids jammed the stairways as they rushed to their next class. If I had looked down at my feet and not at the student’s faces I would have sworn the noisy stairwells and crowded classrooms were mine. The only distance I felt was my own. I had created an expectation of separation between myself and these students which did not exist. These kids were welcoming even if the cold desk chairs weren’t.


“There’s 12 of them. Some boys, mostly girls. They were sitting at a table with their teacher and some of our kids in the cafeteria. They don’t look as scared as they did a couple of hours ago. Man they were shittin their pants then. They’re all smiling and laughing now.”


Why did I believe that Harlem was so different from my own community? I’m sure it was the reason my teacher brought the class to the Harlem high school. He wanted to expand our current white, teenage experience. I failed to appreciate the impact of the racial conflicts that were occurring within the decade surrounding this visit. Science and literature were exploring racism. In the early 1980s genetic differences between the races were being proposed. (These differences have since been proven unfounded.) “The Bell Curve” was published, widely read, and discussed as a basis for scientific racism.


“I guess we do have some stuff in common. I don’t want to go to their school though. Maybe if we could hang with these kids, since they’ve been here, but if not, no way I’m going there.”


The race riots that occurred during the 1990s would have reinforced my fear of the black community if not for my positive experience in Harlem. The LA race riots in 1992, which were spurred by the Rodney King beatings, were an unavoidable subject. Television coverage of the damage, both material and physical, was horrifying. The Crown Heights riots in New York City the year before were less publicized but even more so locally influential. Both occurrences should have helped shine a light on racial conflicts and the importance of peaceful solutions, but the shooting of, a 23 year old unarmed immigrant form Guinea, Amadou Diallo in 1999 in New York City by four police officers still shocked the community. The shooting was found to be unwarranted, but the officers were exonerated of the charges. For white Americans, events like these validated a climate of fear of blacks.


Racism pervaded my existence and yet I had no awareness of how it shaped my obscenely white world. Perhaps that is why my class trip to a Harlem high school has stayed with me for so long and continues to influence my adult life. It changed me. Since then I have aspired to treat everyone with the same respect the Harlem high school kids gave me because their actions envisage the ideal of a more humane world.

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