Monday, December 5, 2016

Lady Work Crush, 2010: A Story of Cultural (In)competence (Part One)

First, an invitation—as I muddle my way through talking about race in this story, readers of color should please feel encouraged to push back on anything that bothers you. 9/10 of cultural competency is just being ready to say I’m sorry.

In 2008, I moved from a small city to a bigger one, and the new city felt more segregated to me, though I was probably just feeling the shock of a less white-centric existence. Though my defensiveness and self-righteousness wouldn’t have allowed to admit it at the time, I brought entitlement and racism in with me. I’m sure that that informs this story and I hope that I’ve made some progress in the intervening years.

As my AmeriCorps position brought me into situations where I was often the only white person, one thing that I had to get used to was people distrusting me based on my race. It was only a microscopic fraction of what people of color go through, but it hurt and felt frustrating nonetheless. People kept assuming I was a pushover, so I ended up coming across as meaner than I meant to, more forceful. I wanted insta-credit for living in the same neighborhood and for serving the kids—that’s entitlement. When the kids assumed I was voting for McCain over Obama, I was devastated, and I guess I’ve come a little way forward since then because I felt much more empathy and understanding this year when kids assumed I was voting for Trump.

As I was (often poorly) navigating being the only white person, I was also the only out LGBT person in most rooms. The new neighborhood was very religious, both Christian and Muslim, and was much more gender-normative than the hippie neighborhood I’d come from. My wife and I stopped holding hands as we walked down the street, and I don’t think I’ve ever fully acknowledged the loss in that.

The afterschool program I worked in was sexist and homophobic. My supervisor told me that he felt it was men’s duty to “correct” any boys they noticed “acting wrong.” (Meaning gay.) We walked the kids in from school in boy-girl lines. Though I loved leading my group with my sweet and sensitive male teaching partner, the supervisor put a more traditionally masculine man in charge of us because he thought “a male influence would give the kids more structure.” I quit in a blustery huff and moved to another site with a more progressive leader.

I’d only been working with kids for a couple of years at that point, but I’d already decided that it was my duty to be as out as I could with them. I wanted them to know that they knew at least one LGBT person and for any kids who were growing up queer to know they had at least one ally. Even under the progressive boss, I was always getting in trouble for this. There were meetings. When the progressive boss moved to another position, he was replaced by a mean young woman and things got worse.

Once, I showed the kids a picture on my phone of Sweetie and me having bagels with my niece. Meanwhile, my boss had an entire collage of her family life behind her desk for all to see. I was pulled aside at a training by my boss’s boss for a reprimand, and I pushed back against it, saying that I felt unwelcome and unsafe because of the double standard. I was proud that I’d stood up for myself and I hoped that maybe I was heard.

It was into this context that Lady Work Crush arrived. She was beautiful and I felt something spark between us, or at least spark in me. She came across as a little butch and she looked like a goddess to me. We became friends and my heart started to do the yearning thing.

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