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All around me were angry or disgruntled faces. They were huddled, shoulders hunched yet stiff as if ready for a fight. Words and emotions were being thrown back and forth, each one slicing the atmosphere and creating a new, more dark and angry one instead. No one was smiling or happy. Instead, everyone was glaring and staring intently at me and the few other white students in the room.
When I was at a conference at Swarthmore College for child labor, I was one of the few white students. With the exception of the group I went with and a few kids from other schools, we were the minority. Growing up in a small town in Vermont, this is rarely the case for me. If it’s ever happened to me in the past, I hadn’t realized it. Again, it wasn’t that I was disliked for this but I was not used to the bias or profiling. The students around me assumed because of the color of my skin I was just like all other white people. I was classified as being a part of a group that wasn’t able to see things in a new way or understand that there is diversity out there.
When there was a big group discussion at the end of the conference, things got heated. I don’t remember how it started, and it doesn’t really matter, but I remember suddenly being accused by almost all the other kids around me for being the cause of injustice in our culture. It wasn’t me personally, but the color of my skin. I sat there and listened to student after student say to our small group all these things that may have some truth but also felt blown out of proportion.
“White people have it made. Why bother with higher education or education at all when everything is handed to them on that d*mn silver platter.”
The girl speaking wore a baggy, ashy-blue hoodie, tight jeans and oversized, pearly white shoes. Her hair was jet black and straight. She had a permanent grimace on her face and her dark eyes were glaring. She was the spokesperson for the majority group, it seemed. Others spoke too but she said the most, with the biggest impact.
At first, I was shocked. I didn’t believe people felt so unfairly treated. I was saddened by it and ashamed that life seemed to be that way. Then, though, more was said and this time, for the first time, it enraged me.
“All you white kids get whatever the h*ll you want, no matter what. It wouldn’t matter if I was more qualified for the job than you, you would get it! It’s unfair. Always.”
None of these accusers knew me or what my life was about. Just recently I had experienced inequality all its own at a separate conference. When I was in Washington, D.C. for the National Young Leaders Conference I was one of the only middle class kids. Never before had I been excluded by what I lacked, cosmetically or superficially.
All of wealthy kids had trust funds and carried expensive accessories- a new one for each day to match their outfits. They would dangle their purses off their arms or a single finger, not bothering to notice their weight or worth- credit cards and wore designer clothes. Many of which they would never wear again. I, on the other hand, had none of these things. Many of my outfits I had picked up at secondhand stores around town. The new clothing I had picked up was on sale. I borrowed much of my jewelry from my mom who had, incidentally, gotten most of hers second hand or as a gift. I brought with me one purse. Everything else I carried around in my worn down, purple and pink Columbia backpack.
Again the girl with the ashy-blue hoodie spoke. “It doesn’t matter what I say or do because things will never change. There won’t be equality- at least not fully- ever. This conference won’t change that and our President won’t either. For white people the sky is the limit but for everyone else, the limit is the sky.”
Almost everyone else murmured with agreement at statements like this. They whispered encouragement to this bold girl, turning their bodies towards her and away from our small white group. Some boys stiffened up with pride while the girls squeezed each other’s hands with excitement and joy. Although I saw where everyone was coming from it felt so displaced. Here we were, at this bright and new countrywide conference and the discussion had resorted to this. That was when I realized that everyone was sitting according to the color of his or her skin. It was a rainbow of color but nothing was blended.
I was judged. Not harshly or constantly but it was still there. I had never thought that what I looked like or where I came from was anything to be ashamed of. Many of the kids at the conference made it seem like it was. It felt like an attack, almost. Being a white, middle class kid had never been an issue for me. Almost everyone in my town is in the same boat as I am. At the conference, though, it looked like I was just a prototype or normality in society. Whether I not I was different from other people it didn’t matter, because of those two things I was in a certain group; the you-don’t-understand-so-stop-trying-to group. I had never before felt excluded by my race. I was simply characterized by it. Pigeonholed because of my color. In the end, the adults facilitating had to break up the discussion. Sadly, we were going no where.
I had always been appalled by discrimination and unfair treatment. My older sisters were adopted from El Salvador and look different than most people in Brattleboro, Vermont. I have heard their stories. I have seen people react negatively. People don’t always see them the right way. My mother grew up in a lower income family. She’s told me what it was like to struggle with month-to-month bills. I had never experienced things like this before, though. I knew that discrimination of this kind happened but it had never happened to me. Once I did, I finally understood. Suddenly, my eyes were wide open.
It wasn’t that I sympathized anymore but now I could see the injustice through my own eyes. It may have only been for a few days but it was enough to make me see. My tolerance and understanding have increased too. If I had learned nothing else from those conferences, this would have been enough.