Some Meditations on Race in Grosse Pointe
Originally published to my Facebook page on November 14th, 2016
Even before the results of last Tuesday’s election, I had been thinking a lot about race in Grosse Pointe. My younger sister who’s a senior had told me some disturbing comments along the lines of “only dumb black kids take that class” she’d heard in recent weeks, and it was on my mind. I have heard the statement “GP is all white people” echoed again and again—and sometimes I’ve even said it myself. GP is historically, and continues to be thought of, as an upper middle class suburb where white people in polos and pastel-colored shorts sip white wine on their yachts. And it often seems as if that is still the reality of my insular hometown, jokingly referred to as “The GP Bubble” by GP-natives.
But GP isn’t all white. In fact, a large percentage of my graduating high school class was black, and there were a handful of Asian students and mixed race students in every grade as well. For the majority of my time at GPN, however, black students hung out with black students, and white students hung out with white. There were some exceptions—students who were “white-presenting” that could shift between the groups—but for the most part, there was a divide. And I think a lot of white students pretended it didn’t exist, or when they did notice it thought “Huh.” and moved on. They didn’t do it because they were terrible people, but because they had been conditioned from a young age by overly-simplified curriculums to believe that America was a post-racist country.
There were only three black students in my fifth-grade graduating class. And as far as I knew at the time, we were all the same. We were all students and we were all human beings. It was the blissful ignorance that comes with learning that “Despite our skin colors, we are all the same.” Now, of course race is a social construct, but in teaching us this, we were also taught to deny the fact that America still treats black people like second-class citizens, still denies them basic rights, continues to criminalize and kill them, and on an even smaller social level, paints them as inherently “different” from the majority white people believe themselves to be.
It wasn’t until maybe seventh or eighth grade that I realized racism was still something that existed, and it didn’t just exist out in the world; it was part of my school. It was in the way a white person mimicking a cultural marker of blackness or speaking in ebonics was called out as “so ghetto!” and the derision and scorn that came with that label. It was present in high school when I saw a group of white girls tell another white girl that her ass was “so black”. It was present in the assumption in choir that the black kids would have rhythm, and the white kids would not.
All of these things were so ingrained in us by high school, I think a lot of people didn’t recognize the racist assumptions that their passing statements were built upon. For anyone who’s confused, to call someone “ghetto” as a coded term for “black” paints all black people as poor and classless, but most of all, it serves to paint blackness as inherently negative itself. “Ghetto” then, when used by a white person, becomes a racist othering of black people. Calling someone’s rear end or sense of rhythm black stems from the racist science of the 1920s, which said that black people were biologically different and inferior than white people, and used twisted logic to “prove” that white people were “superior”.
I hate to think that this is what black students at GPN heard and felt from their white classmates, but I don’t doubt these microaggressions were the least of it. Our teachers in high school definitely worked harder to complicate discussions of race, but even in the brilliant Diversity Club, our discussions or racism and bigotry always seemed to skim the surface and often felt theoretical; we were talking about racism and bigotry affecting communities out in the world and failing to acknowledge the perspectives of individual students about those issues in OUR school.
Not to get too onto a touchy subject, but I’m already talking about race, so roll with me for a second. With this recent election, I’ve seen a lot of white people posting about how they feel attacked for their conservative beliefs, and how “we’re not all racist, bigots, etc.” And cool. Good for you if you’re somehow not. But considering that the majority of our life education in The GP Bubble blinded us to issues of racism, bigotry, classism, etc., and that the world we live in perpetuates the white supremacist ideology upon which America was founded, I ask anyone feeling attacked as a white person to seriously look at their own actions, words, and beliefs, and locate where those feelings are coming from. Look at where you stand in our world. The attacked and belittled feeling you’re experiencing is one people of color have experienced for centuries.
And I don’t think people from GP are all terrible racists. That’s not what I’m saying. I don’t think most people want to have hate in their heart and I still stand by the idea that most people want to avoid making others deeply upset or uncomfortable. What I guess I’m really saying is, sometimes we can say racist, bigoted shit without realizing it’s racist, bigoted shit because we were raised in a homogenized suburb where we didn’t always see how our words could affect marginalized people. I guess what I’m really asking for is consideration and contemplation from white people, especially at GPN. There’s a lot of anger flying around the country right now, and the best thing we can do is look out for one another and call ourselves on our bullshit.