Mainstream and Me

By Ellen Jurgens, TIWP College Program

I grew up about sixteen miles east of Seattle. In our neighborhood, my family was one of four or five white families. One of six if you count our neighbor to the left who was a middle-aged Russian lady. Obviously she was white, just not as boring as the rest of us white people.

Most of the kids I played with were Indian. I was also the only girl on my street so all the Indian moms dressed me up in beautiful saris and elaborate bindis. When their grandparents would visit—most of whom were still living in India—they would bring more traditional clothing for me and treats for my family.

My best friend in elementary school was named Anna and her family was from Korea. Her mom was an excellent cook; except for when I threw up her homemade rice cakes that apparently had a touch of gluten.

I am very grateful for my exposure to different cultures growing up. However, that didn’t mean race was something I grasped. Unlike some other racially diverse areas, my town wasn’t very segregated. Since everyone was kind of at the same socio-economic level and electing for things like private schools or country clubs didn’t exist, there weren’t many structures present that are usually sources for division. As a kid, I think I saw race very tied to culture—so perhaps it was only ethnicity I was aware of. Growing up was kind of like the “Around the World” day in elementary school when each kid dresses up in front of a tri-fold board, handing out churros or baklava. People were very in tune with their culture where I grew up—often wearing, eating, and practicing this culture on a daily basis.

Although I by no means grew up in a “white bubble,” I moved to California no more racially literate than say a white kid born and raised in Walnut Creek. Maybe I was more ethnically aware, but that was about it. Race didn’t actually enter the forefront of my mind until my freshman year of college.

In my residential suite, I was the only white girl out of nine, but just like my childhood neighborhood, a diverse environment in college still didn’t shove the concept of race in my face. It took my first quarter of school, and particularly a class that explored the less popular history of America—one that was centered on axes like race, gender, sexuality, nationality, class, etc. That is when I finally was made aware of my position as a white woman. In the class we talked about the unique standing of white women.

For decades white women were the face of the feminist movement, seemingly united against the patriarchy, against gender violence, against legal and professional inequality. However, the challenges white women faced were very different than those faced by women of color. Although the movement worked under some veil of common understanding between all women, there was—and still is—no such thing as a unified “sisterhood.” Women of color faced both racialized sexism and gendered racism.

While the feminist movement pushed hard for the liberation of the female, the movement sat down when confronted with the female still wearing the shackles of slavery.
When I attended the Women’s March two years ago, I did so as a white woman marching for the traditional feminist narrative—essentially I was only marching for other white woman.

This thinking is as if women of color are expected to have their own marches—can you imagine…the “Black Women’s March” or the “Indigenous Women’s March.” When we make the mainstream march a white space, we are essentially telling everyone else that their issues aren’t my issues so they are irrelevant and do not belong on the same platform.
This is how people become marginalized.

They are continually pushed to the margins, every movement working for one part of their identity all while rejecting the other parts. With the current BLM protests, the tendency for movements to marginalize leads to questions like: How are LGBTQ+ black people being given representation? How is the violence against black men the same as and different from that experienced by black trans men? On the socioeconomic axis, we can ask, how are poor black people experiencing racism the same as and different from well-off black people? How do disabled black people face both racism and ableism, and are they being represented by the demands of the movement? There are endless questions that could be asked. Questions that bring mainstream consciousness to the people being left behind.
To conclude, my experience of race has obviously been one of privilege. My understanding of race has evolved significantly in the last year and has helped me think critically about matters of justice. I think the most important thing I have learned is to keep asking questions.

Who is not at the table? What is the author/speaker leaving out?

Questions like these continually challenge what is taken for granted, what is assumed, what is the norm.

The norm is a dangerous thing. It survives just fine with inaction and only dies with tremendous amounts of resistance.

White supremacy is deep in the institutions of America. It started with the mass murder of Native Americans and ensuing slave trade and has merely evolved into its contemporary reflection—policy brutality, the prison-industrial complex, gentrification, voter suppression, etc. Our country hasn’t really changed.

The BLM protests have incredible potential to create permanent changes in our racist institutions. The protests have worked by asking questions about the value of certain institutions—like law enforcement—if they can only function by brutalizing the most vulnerable members of our community. Calls for defunding police rely on this idea that racism is so innate in the institution that it can’t simply be reformed—it must be demolished and rebuilt. I am hopeful that law enforcement is only the first of many institutions to come under public scrutiny and rebuilt with a more just purpose.

We must collectively emerge from our caves of ignorance and privilege and misguided grievances in order to create a country that actually deserves our patriotism.

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