This time last year, a burly black guy from Brooklyn, also known as to me as teddy bear and best friend, nicknamed me ‘white chocolate’. I began learning about the Black Power movement from a mixed race woman born in Chicago at a time when my ancestors in Tennessee may still have been racist. A West Indian boy, also from Brooklyn, taught me how to wine in a brightly lit Manhattan office. Another black man from Brooklyn schooled me in hip-hop, laughed at my collection of Eminem (‘you certainly know your white history’) and taught me to step. When I showed my (white) friends back in Jersey what I’d learned, they asked if my ‘friends’ who taught me to move like melanin were black. “Yeah… Why?” I asked. This time last year, I didn’t understand what race had to do with it (spoiler alert: race has everything to do with it). I was just a (white) girl who’d fallen in love with poetry and felt alive in a room shuddering with hip-hop. I didn’t know the words to any of the songs. I didn’t know names or faces and I couldn’t dance, but I’d fallen in love with the art that brought this community together and, accidentally in love with that community itself. It all started with a notebook and a microphone…
I am from a little suburban town in New Jersey populated mostly by vaguely liberal college professors and vaguely conservative Jews. There is a corner on the other side of town that is predominantly black, but none of my (white) friends from my hometown live there. It’s not exactly a “bad neighborhood.” It’s just loud at night and far from everything. No one really thinks about it because no one (white or middle class) really goes there. It has a reputation as “ghetto” and “ratchet,” which doesn’t have to mean black and totally isn’t a “racial thing.” It’s a “cultural thing,” right? Rap music and double Ph.D university professors aren’t from the same “culture,” right? I was born and raised in a community that believes that.
I am From (with capital “F” like a second-generation Jamaican immigrant raised in Brooklyn by a stern Jamaican mother who still speaks Patios more than English at home is From Jamaica) Highland Park, New Jersey. My home, however, is the Urban Word NYC (a cultural nonprofit focused on the development of youth literacy and voice primarily through spoken word poetry, hip-hop music and other artistic expression) office and the community surrounding it. This community is drawn together by a mutual strangeness and love of art. This community also happens to have me in the minority. I come from a place where hip-hop and reggae (and if you think those aren’t racial, cultural things with profound history, you clearly need to see this video about cultural appropriation) are their own language and I am hardly a native speaker. I speak hip-hop like a second level college Spanish student speaks Spanish: clumsily, in broken spurts. Still, Urban Word is my family, which implies their willingness to accept me despite my own flaws as much as my profound feelings of belonging.
When people ask me ‘where I’m from,’ I never know quite what to say. Technically, I’m from suburban New Jersey, but that cannot possibly encompass what it feels like to go home. What I’d rather be asked is what I’ve learned. I’ve learned empathy, compassion and the value of accepting and understanding difference. I’ve learned the NYPD are bastards if you’re a young black man in Brownsville and that being white gives me privilege whether I want it or not (for more on white privilege, if the Zimmerman verdict isn’t enough for you, check out this poem by Nicole Homer). I’ve learned to stand with people, but never for them. I’ve learned to tread carefully because not every space is mine to take, but never be afraid to take a stand when genuinely trodden on. Still, I haven’t learned how to always tell the difference. Is dancing to reggae with a black friend wrong? Is teaching a white friend to step wrong? Is wanting to learn how to step and break-dance a culturally appropriative impulse? I don’t know.
This next year, I’m traveling to Ecuador where again I will be an outsider. I will be a Narwhal (a New School university student) in Ecuador (a country where only 13.7% of the population receive the higher education I have always taken for granted). I, like an Arctic whale in a tropical country, do not belong in Ecuador. I can only hope to find a new home to be accepted into where I can refine the ability to understand and respect cultural difference. I hope to stand with the people of Ecuador and I hope to refine my understanding of what that really means. Perhaps even answer some of my lingering questions about how to responsibly be a middle class white girl from New Jersey in a world that favors that position far too freely.
And, this is why Global Citizen Year is important: 100 young people will return next April who have learned how to stand with a people, to respect them regardless of privilege and live with empathy and compassion throughout their lives.