Saturday, June 18, 2011

Being in the Minority

Although books like Lies My Teacher Told Me have opened my eyes to things such as white privilege and the Meritocracy Myth, I've reflected some more on what it would be like to be a minority while reading Diversity, Community and Achievement for my TFA training. But reading and reflecting upon what it would be like to be a minority is a far cry from actually experiencing it. The first item on the "white privilege" list linked above is:
"I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time."

Well, during Erin and my recent trip to Chicago, I got to experience what it was like to be in the minority. While these experiences were short and fairly shallow, they were still effective in getting me out of my comfort zone and forcing me to see the majority culture through the eyes of a minority.

The first experience was on Sunday night, when we were finishing our tour of Chicago festivals. We started with the Blues Festival, moved on to the Rib Festival and then ended the Sommarfest. While walking from the bus stop to the festival, I pointed out two girls holding hands, telling Erin, "that's not something you see that often." As we walked into the blocked off area of the block party, I suddenly saw a lot of girls holding hands, guys, too. My first observation was the lack of pretense and posturing that was evident at the more main-stream Rib Festival. But that thought was quickly replaced by, "Erin and I are some of the few straight people walking around here." Walking around the festival, I spent some time wondering how these gay and lesbian couples feel when at large social gatherings in which they are in the minority.

The next morning, we took the L out to the Chicago Conservatory. It was a neat place to explore, Erin was impressed with the replicated Giverny garden of Monet and the lushness of the Fern Room. After touring the Conservatory, we hopped back on the L and headed west, deeper into the city and further away from the downtown loop. After about one L stop, I realized we were the only white people on the train. When we got off at our stop, while walking to a bus stop that would take us north toward the Cornipcus Theatre, we were surrounded by the usual business of a Chicago street, but unlike other times, we were the only white people on the street. For the next couple of miles, we saw a lot of people; people getting in and off the bus and people walking along the street, but only two other white people. It was one of the few times in my life in which I've been in a large group of people and been a small minority. Some of the thoughts that kept running through my head were "what is everyone else thinking about this white couple" and "what would it be like if being in the minority was a daily experience?" It was an eye-opening experience.

And suddenly, after crossing a street, we were in the majority and non-whites were again in the minority. I assume that the reasons for this type of neighborhood segregation in Chicago are similar to the reasons for the segregation in Kansas City, but the switch was almost instant. And I wondered what it must be like to know that there are certain neighborhoods in which you're not welcome, simply because of your race.

The neighborhood we were going to visit was the Polish area of Chicago. According to the guy who ran the Coperican Theatre, Chicago has the largest concentration of Polish people outside of Warsaw. This guy, who sounded kind of like a Superfan, recommended a tiny little Polish restaurant for fulfilling our desire for authentic Polish food.

The restaurant hadn't changed in years and the food was incredible. Erin had some chicken dumplings and I had an incredible polish sausage with some sweet sauerkraut. The eye-opening part of this event was that our waitress, an older lady who both took our order and prepared our food, kept talking to us in Polish. She was explaining the dishes and asking what else we wanted, but our Polish is, well, not too polished. She seemed to be a bit impatient with us, having an air of "this is a Polish restaurant, why can't you speak our language." In response to, yet again, being in the minority, I wondered what it would be like to be on the other end of the bumper sticker that read Welcome to America, Now Speak English.

Tony Campolo likes to say that the point of Democracy is not to let the majority rule, but to protect the minority. It seems to me, however that that isn't often the case. Sometimes because the majority wants to protect their priveleged status, but usually simply because good-hearted people simply are unaware of the advantages of being in the majority and the disadvantages of being in the minority.

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