A few years ago, I got dragged in at very short notice to take over teaching a certain anthropology course, about four weeks into the term. The course was Ethnic Relations – not my area of expertise, but I was the closest thing to an anthropologist they could rustle up at short notice. I stepped into the breach–and into a minefield.
The textbook I inherited from the regular instructor revolved around a series of first-person narratives collected by a black ethnic-studies scholar in Toronto, all about microaggressions and white privilege and institutional racism, and umpteen other kinds of racism – displayed only, of course, by whites, especially whites who didn’t realize they were racist, which is apparently one of the very worst kinds. In short, it was an absolutely typical Critical Race Theory screed, heavy on anecdote and polemic; but when I asked the students if the previous instructor had mentioned Critical Race Theory at any point, they just looked blank. Indeed, they seemed a little surprised to discover they were racists, but mainly wanted to know if it would be on the test.
Well, I did what I could to introduce some critical thinking into the course. I framed it as “playing devil’s advocate,” but we did, by gum, end up discussing the history, context, and assumptions of Critical Theory. I was stuck with the textbook, though, and it was a stinker. The POC narratives were all about awful it was when white people were nasty to you, or too nice to you, or ignored you, or didn’t ignore you, or had expectations that were too high, or expectations that were too low…etc. Putting them all together, it seemed that opening your mouth while white was a racist act, almost as racist as keeping your mouth shut. Further, the narratives by POC were presented as profound, legitimate, and insightful, whereas the few narratives by white respondents were heavily annotated to highlight what the editor considered to be racism and unchecked privilege.
One narrative was about the racist oppression suffered by the only black kid on a hockey team. No, the coach did not treat him any differently from the other boys. No, the other boys did not discriminate against him, much less abuse or denigrate him. They liked him, and he liked them. But he felt they were racist, because an opposing player once called him a racist epithet on the ice, and his teammates did not rise up to smite the offender.
Now, since narrative was clearly the order of the day, I thought it would be interesting to present the class with a matching story: the experience of the only white kid on an otherwise all-brown team. As it happened, I knew a young man who filled that bill, and he obliged me with a few paragraphs. Here is what I gave the class:
Context: A junior soccer league numerically dominated by Indo-Canadian boys, some born in Canada, some in India. [Name redacted] was the only white player on the top-tier team in the 16-18 age group. Here is how he describes the experience:
Initially, acceptance onto the team was nonexistent. In the tryout, I never got a pass from anyone, the only time I would actually get the ball was when I won it myself. Also I was subbed more frequently than any other player because at the tryout the teams did their own subs. Once I made the team, tho, acceptance came slowly. Once I proved that I was the fastest at running on our team I was allowed in because they saw I could be an asset. Also my best friend, who is brown, came to my team, which was a big help.
Even after I became friends with everyone, tho, my nicknames were always based around my skin colour, “white boy, Gouda” (means white guy in punjabi). Also they’d poke jabs at white ppl, mostly about white guys more than girls, and they’d do this right in front of me as if I wasn’t white anymore and those things shouldn’t annoy me. An example would be when talking about treatment at home, they’d all make jokes about how “only white guys get grounded, cause they can’t take a hit like a brown person” – where a brown parent would typically discipline by physical force.
All in all I made a lot of brown friends and nowadays when I see them outside in real life [i.e., not at soccer] everyone’s rlly friendly. I don’t get treated like a typical white guy does by brown ppl anymore (disregard and disdain) partly because they don’t see me as white anymore, just a rlly light brown person. When we go out to parties or clubs I’m the token white that helps them get in and get girls. 🙂
The reaction from the class? They looked puzzled for a few moments. Then one of them timidly put up a hand, and said, “The last sentence is racist, maybe?”
Well, that’s the punchline of this story—but I know it’s not really funny.