“Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? If you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”
– James 2: 5-9
Here’s a sample of things people say to me about poor people, especially poor people of color:
“It’s the parent’s fault.”
“My family was low-income, and they worked their way up.”
“They know how to work the system.”
“What can you do when the only people at home they can look up to are drug addicts and dealers?”
“Not much you can do when they just refuse to accept your help.”
“Aren’t Black people just as racist against White people?”
“We have a Black President now.”
When I graduated from college and moved to Tulsa to become a teacher, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. There I was, a person of color who had nevertheless grown up in tremendous privilege her entire life, now teaching in one of the most historically underprivileged communities in the entire country.
Greenwood was at one time a wealthy, thriving, and prosperous urban center, until the White community burned it to the ground in one of the worst acts of domestic terror in our country’s history. Black people were pushed into North Tulsa, and today, the city still has not recovered. North Tulsa continues to languish in poverty, while the White community now controls the majority of wealth in the city, wealth gained by generations of injustice.
North Tulsa vs. South Tulsa. I straddle these two worlds every day. An invisible barrier exists between them that I somehow manage to cross as a teacher. Both worlds are so familiar to me that I sometimes forget this Berlinesque wall exists altogether, until someone from South Tulsa stares at me wide-eyed when I mention where I teach, or a teacher from Union blames the degradation of her school on “those kids from up North” moving into her district, or a White friend looks bewildered when I talk about racism and segregation in the city, or someone starts to monologue racist pathologies that completely deny my experiences. Pathologies like the ones I quoted for you above.
It is easier to talk in general, pathological terms than to talk about real people. It’s easier talk about the “poor, Black children” than to engage in real dialogue about the distribution of wealth in our country and racial segregation. It is easier to talk about how a child is fatherless because of “drugs” than to talk about how his dad was shot in the back while running from the cops. It’s easier to talk about how a father is a “criminal” than to talk about how he’s actually in jail because he’s too poor to pay the traffic fines on his name. It’s easier to talk about how an uncle is imprisoned because of “poor decisions” than to talk about how, despite all the poor decisions I’ve made in my own life, I am nevertheless a successful, college-educated, middle-class adult.
It is easier to talk in pathological terms about my students and their families because when I limit the things I talk about to just “those people,” I get nods of affirmation, pats on the back, and comments like, “I don’t know how you do it.” But when I even tentatively try to break free from this narrative, I get awkward silence.
But I do it anyway. Instead of talking about bad parenting, I talk about the mothers I know who work two to three jobs a week and still make time for parent-teacher conferences. Instead of talking about drugs, I talk about unfair stereotypes, like how we associate poor schools with drugs, when higher-income schools are just as drug-ridden, if not more so. Instead of talking about crime, I talk about a student’s father who is dead because he fumbled with his wallet during a traffic stop.
These things are common, but somehow we get upset when the media starts giving such stories the attention they deserve. We say racist things like, “Obama is Black, and he made it,” or classist things like, “My family was low-income, and we worked our way up the ladder without government assistance,” not realizing that there are people whose income is even lower, who work several jobs at a time and still can’t afford to pay rent.
I don’t fully understand why, but these conversations make the White people and the middle-class people that I know uncomfortable. It is one of the most bizarre experiences of my life, made even more bizarre by the fact that the majority of people who read my blog are either White or middle-class, and I know these words will make them uncomfortable. Please understand, talking about these issues is not an attempt to guilt-trip the White community or undermine middle-class society. Rather, it is a desperate plea to change the way we talk in these conversations.
When I stopped talking about my students as “those kids,” I found to my dismay that the majority of people in my world no longer wanted to listen. I am begging you. Stop. Listen.