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Published in Print: April 1, 2001, as Excerpt: Survival Skills

Excerpt: Survival Skills

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The subtle art of helping students negotiate cultural divisions.

Once Sue, a red-haired Irish American from the South Side of Chicago, introduced me at a reading by saying that she thought she was white until she met me. “Now this girl is white,” she had said. She was right.

I was raised on Brooks Brothers and striped ties, Bass Weejuns and my father walking in the house in the evenings of my childhood with his leather briefcase and his London Fog thrown over his arm. But more than that, I was raised with signals, ways he frowned or turned his body slightly to the side in a subtle act of dismissal. I was raised to take in his looks and preferences. I was not always conscious of this. I was raised on Jane Austen. My mother put books by my bed and dressed me in round collars, plaid skirts, and sweaters with patterned yokes.

I knew by the time I was in the summer of my 15th year exactly how to speak to my boss, a neurologist who slept on the couch in his office some nights. I knew about stance: distance, silence, being discreet and off to the side. I learned these things because I was a white woman in a world where power was never spoken of but assumed. I grew up learning about the order of forks at the table, the carefully constructed signs and signals of the headmistress of my boarding school, when to stand, when to sit. I absorbed this culture without realizing it.

Some of the middle school students I teach writing, both black and white, were not raised this way. But they do recognize that I have something useful to give them. So they pay attention.

Today, for example, with 10 minutes left in the class, I tell students they can put away their work if they want and come to the back of the room for some talk about jobs, interviews, vocational stuff. I have put up an article about this on my “topic of the week” selection board. Students can get credit for writing an essay about the article and also for talking about it. Some weeks no one wants to have the discussion; other weeks a few are interested. Today everyone, except for a couple of students, comes back with me.

Josh asks me about going for an interview. The article talks about the importance of making a first impression and about how some applicants don’t know how to do that.

“What do you wear?” he asks.

“I would just dress in what clothes you might wear to church or some slightly formal event.”

“You know, white people’s clothes,” says Tyrone. “Oh, no offense, Landsman.”

“What do you mean? I don’t dress like that.” This from Josh, who is dressed in baggy pants and a T-shirt, similar to the clothes many of the others, both black and white, are wearing today. Meanwhile, Tyrone is dressed in a button- down shirt and nice slacks. So much for racial definitions of dress.

“I would wear pressed pants,” I say, “a clean dress shirt, a tie, and a jacket or sweater.”

“Like this,” says Tyrone, and in a rare moment of playfulness for him, he gets up and parades in front of the others.

“How about shoes?” Tamika asks.

“Tyrone, what did you wear when you interviewed at the post office the first time?”

“Church-type shoes,” he says, “but then they don’t care what you wear after that.”

“You got any shoes you wear to church when you go?” I ask Jamal, who has wandered in and joined the group.

“Yeah. Some ol’ leather ones. You know, tie shoes. Ugly.”

“Like my mom makes me wear.” This from Josh. “Ugly ol’ shoes.”

They laugh. I have often found that almost all the students in my classes, be they in the suburbs or the city, have common tastes in clothes. Usually, black students wear the latest fashions first; then the white kids follow. Any suburban hallway will reveal the baggy pants, baseball cap, and Starter jacket fashions of the cities as the predominant mode of dress among white students of all groups.

“What about clothes for us women?” asks Sarah.

“Not a sweater like that one you wearin’ right now. They can see all the way down,” says Nancy.

“So? Fine for them. They get a treat!”

“0000000000hhhhhhhhh,” everyone in the group calls out.

“A dress or skirt or pants outfit. You know how to dress.” I say this, and she nods her head.

“Yeah. Like those white kids over Southwest High School be wearin’. Those little sweaters and white blouses and shit like that, huh, Landsman?” Tyrone asks this. “Excuse the swearing,” he adds quickly.

“You don’t have to give up your own taste. Just think about where you are going, who is going to interview you. In an office you want to appeal to whites or blacks who might be the ones interviewing you, the ones who have the power to hire you or not. Or to anyone who wants their office to look kind of conservative.”

“You mean boring, wants it to look boring,” says Tamika. She rolls her eyes.

“What about braids, cornrows, and stuff?” Jamal asks. “What if they tell you you have to get rid of them?”

I have no answer for them. There have been lawsuits in Minnesota about just this issue, and the women who asked to be able to wear cornrows lost one case out at the Mall of America, where many of these students work. I ask them what they would do.

“I would look for another job,” Tamika says. “I would not give up looking black for no job.”

All of them nod their heads.

I almost always get this kind of undivided attention when I am explaining how to interview for a job. I feel their concentration when I talk about how to answer questions, how to sit, what to say in a letter of introduction. I will not need to tell them this many times because this matters to them. If they do not pay attention, then they may not get the job, be accepted into the college. If they do not write the correct five-paragraph essay, they may not be awarded one of the few scholarships at the school where they want to go. In addition to the black students, poor white students like Josh and Sarah—those with too-small shoes and thin T-shirts, the ones who are often cold in the winter—listen with the same intensity as the students who are black, Native, Asian, and Latino.

My students are smart. Although they do live in a white world, many of them are not of that world. Yet they have carefully observed it. They have had to observe it in order to survive in it. They know they have to learn to negotiate between their own homes and mine. They have to learn to lower their voices and raise their hands. Some may have to speak without dialect. They use their observation and knowledge of the white world of power, combined with what we can tell them of this world, to negotiate their ways.

I feel that my role in this negotiation is tricky. I am only giving them part of the picture, the part I live, the part I observe from inside the culture. I can make explicit what I know about jobs and how to keep them, finding homes, getting into college. I also feel a responsibility to make sure I do this without asking them to give up anything of their own culture, their own language.

Many students are bilingual. They speak white English and Ebonics. They speak Hmong at home and English in school. They speak Spanish at home and English at school. They are always translating. Translation is more than just language translation. It is body language, eye contact, all the subtle things I grew up with in a rich, white home. Many of the students I work with have already figured this out. Others are not so sure, and still others don’t want to have anything to do with it.

For those who do want support in going out to find certain types of jobs, I believe that it is up to those of us who are a part of the white power world to give them all the information we can. This information, coupled with the observations they have already made, may enable them to flow a little more easily into white structures. This information—how to take a test, what’s on the SATs, how to study for essay exams—might simply be giving them more of a choice in competing for jobs in white corporations if this is what they are aiming for.

My other role is to subtly support those who are trying to make it outside their own peer group. The key word here is subtly. I cannot be seen as an ally yet can become one. If it is after school, or before, by passing a note or writing a job or college reference in secret, I feel I have to be there for those students who are aiming for something some of their peers will demean them for wanting. I have to be supportive of their “acting white,” as their peers may call it, without singling them out. This is a tightrope that is difficult to walk. I slip too often. I give verbal praise when too many can hear, and the student is embarrassed. He knows he may have to put up with teasing later.


Vol. 12, Issue 7, Pages 42-45

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