WHAT’S WAITING FOR ME

Stay tuned to Liza’s blog over the next few days as she writes live from the People of Color Conference (National Association of Independent Schools) in Nashville, TN!

 On a board of on-time flights, I have to be on the ONLY one that is significantly delayed…

On a board of on-time flights, I have to be on the ONLY one that is significantly delayed…

On social media, no lie, people start counting down to the next People of Color Conference the day after the current People of Color Conference. For about a week, there’s lots of hype about how grateful folks are for being in this space; how much they felt loved and seen; and how they have to get ready to transition back (peep this “ReEntry blog” here from last year if you need to get ready earlier!).

So here we are today, on the eve of the 2018 conference. And, instead of reflection on how powerful the conference is, I find myself already yearning to be in the space already. NOTE: This feeling is amplified, no doubt, by the fact that I’m going on HOUR 7 of sitting in this airport due to multiple flight delays…. While my bottom side is numb from these airport chairs, I’m already scrolling through social media to see my timeline filled with reunion photos and all the emojis about how psyched people are. #FOMO4REAL

Now, if you’ve been to PoCC, you can just read this blog with lots of affirmation and be reminded of what’s in store for you.

If you are new to PoCC or, by chance, don’t or can’t go, you might be wondering what all this talk is of “being seen” and “surrounded by love” and “unapologetically fierce.” This is, then, for you.

I grew up in a white, Irish/Italian, Catholic suburb of Boston. My parents, after working years of midnight shifts and moonlighting, saved up enough money to move our family of 5 from a small apartment in Boston to the “idyllic” suburbs (that’s a blog post for another time). You can also read into some of that coded language, yes? We moved to an (nearly) all white community which had no reflection of our racial identities in our schools, curriculum, teachers, coaches, neighbors, or even strangers. I remember the day our town hired its first Asian male police officer. I was there when they hired their first Asian male guidance counselor in our high school.

Truth is, I’ve spent almost my whole life in and surrounded by whiteness — it has become my “norm.” There is a saying that “You don’t ask a fish to describe water”; well, it was difficult for me to describe my experiences with racial diversity growing up because that water, well, that water was always whiteness.

Going to PoCC, for me, was the first time I realized I was in water. It was the first time I had realized just how much whiteness was in everything, every part, and every nook of my life. At Pocc, I remember experiencing tension between discomfort and total comfort. I remember the first time I went to the airport headed to PoCC and nearly the entire airplane was headed to PoCC. How do I know that? Well, because nearly the entire plane was filled with Black and Brown people. “But Liza, that’s so weird that you noticed that.” Yeah? Well, next time you get on a plane or a bus, I want you to notice race. I had never noticed race before because I was just so used to white and whiteness always being the normal. The water. But, this time, legit. I had never, ever, been on a plane with so many Black and Brown folks. (NOTE 2: There are no Black or Brown folks on this delayed flight. I am bitter.)

But, when it wasn’t — when it wasn’t all white — something different happened. I got curious. I felt strange. I felt both totally invisible and totally seen. I know it’s a difficult concept to imagine, right? Being invisible and being totally seen? Well, if you’ve been in spaces of whiteness for most of your life, you’ll know what that feeling is the second you step into a PoCC space.

As you get ready to experience PoCC, I hope you embrace some of these reflection questions in the context of this invisible/visible feeling. Find a way to debrief with someone - especially if you are at PoCC alone. Typically, I go with a group of colleagues and we spend a bit of time each evening chatting about our experiences. I hope you find these useful for your group:

  • Notice what you are feeling as you enter into spaces where PoCC attendees are in. What do you see? What do you see differently? What do you notice?

  • When you are in the keynote speakers sessions (the big rooms!), what do you hear? What is the energy that you feel? How is the same or different from what you have experienced back home?

  • In what ways do you feel invisible? In what ways do you notice your racial identity no longer being salient? In what ways are you no longer hyper-visible in a room? In a group? In a public space?

  • In what ways do you feel very visible? In what ways do you notice your racial identity being amplified? In what ways are you hyper-visible?

  • What do you wish others would experience? What words would you use to describe your experience?

  • What would people who are not at PoCC not understand about your experience? What makes that important?

And, if you see me wandering around PoCC, stop me and say “hi!” Introduce yourself. Experience what it feels like to be joyously seen!

Peace and love,
Liza

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At Least for Today

"If you act like you belong here, people will treat you like you do." When my husband was away on a business trip to Washington state, he had set his status on his Facebook account to "If you act like you belong here, people will treat you like you do." Hmmm, I wondered what was going on during his trip and where he was that spurred him to write that.

Fast forward.

Today, I am in Vermont. I was asked to be a guest speaker at a conference for admissions and college counseling professionals. "Liza, we really would like if you could offer some sessions on diversity at this conference. We just don't have a lot of presentations but feel that the diversity conversations need to occur." I happily accepted (unpaid, AND had to actually PAY to be a presenter.... file that into my "WTF?" moments) because the person who asked me is a friend, a colleague, and a person who I know is committed to diversity issues.

And, hell, I had never been to Vermont.

In context, I just returned from the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity where there were approximately 2,500 people. I don't have the actual statistics, but I would venture to say that 90% of the people there were people of color. Now, I am here. Where out of 500 participants, there are quite possibly a few dozen POC's. And in the state of Vermont, there are roughly 3% people of color (ALANA).

I'm all for conferencing. In fact, I love going to conferences - the social networking, the professional connections, the like minded conversations, the people who "get you." Yet, as I found myself with a Bingo Blotter and a Sam Adams in my hands, I felt foreign. Alien. Like I didn't belong.

I have worked in Admissions, so I do share a professional connection with the people here. I know the lingo. I know the travel season. I know the late night reading of applications, the waitlist, the yield events. But, I found myself wanting to break free from the calling of "B-4.. and after..." and get on to my political and racial blogs. I wanted my safety blankets. I wanted my like minded people. I wanted people who "got me."

Driving up to Vermont was fantastic thinking time for me. I caught up on all my back issues of Addicted to Race podcast, and I used the time to reflect on my present experience.

I had to pee. Really bad. Both the blessing and the curse of Vermont (at least for me at the moment) was that there are very few chain organizations on the highways. I'm so used to driving I-95 to NYC and having multiple options of Mobil/McDonalds combinations to stretch my legs, grab something to eat, fill up on gas, or just catch a snooze for 10-15 minutes. I felt those same urges on my 4 1/2 hour ride to Vermont, but didn't find anything on the side of the road. I was getting desperate and decided to exit. I drove by trees, trees, and more trees. Then, I came upon a "rest area" where there was a store (no drive through) and gas station. The small parking lot was overtaken by big white men trucks.

What did I do?

I turned around, got back onto the highway, and kept on driving.... the rest of the 2 1/2 hours to my destination. Pressure was mounting.

As I was driving, I kept asking myself,

  • "What's going on here?
  • Why didn't I go in?
  • Why am I waiting so long?
  • What is this internal dialogue I'm having with myself about my comfort level? About my situation? About my own pre-judging? What is it?
  • Why would I rather experience physical discomfort (hunger, thirst, the need to pee really bad!) than stop at a local area in Vermont where I would have to get out of my car, ask for a bathroom key, and order some food.
  • Was I being unfair to Vermont? Was I pre-judging a place I had never visited before now? Was I making the same assumptions that a white person makes when deciding whether or not to stop in a predominantly POC community? How would I feel about that?

I put myself through the same exercise I often do in diversity discussions called "What were the first messages... ?" In this exercise, I challenge people to think about "What were the first messages you received about .... (race, women, poor, religions, etc)." So, "Liza, what were the first messages you received about Vermont?" I thought and thought ...

I fought the urge to edit at this point, because above, I wrote, "I had never been to Vermont." After pulling from deep within, I realized I actually HAD been in Vermont - overnight, in fact! When I was looking at graduate schools back in 1997, I had applied and was accepted to a great graduate program up in Vermont. I went on the internship interviews. While here, I was driving to campus and both felt and heard something hit my car window (later, identified as a snowball).

Recalling that memory, I felt a surge of fear coming through my body. I recall a young white man laughing and pointing at my car as I drove away. Windows were up, and thankfully, I didn't hear what he was saying as he was pointing to me. Needless to say, I didn't attend that university for graduate school, despite the opportunity to not only get a tuition-free graduate degree but also the chance to get PAID to go to grad school!

Prior to my drive up to Vermont, I hadn't thought about that experience. More importantly, I blocked it out completely - telling people, "This is my first time in Vermont" as I arrived to the conference.

I'm finding the need to be with people who 'get me.' I very much believe in Janet Helms's theory on racial identity development, and feel I am sneaking back into the Immersion stage -- that people of color may be the only ones who get me, at least for today.