Luke McGuff (holyoutlaw) wrote,
Luke McGuff

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

On Saturday afternoon, we had a round-table discussion about this book and how it applies to WisCon. Although sparsely attended, I think what needed to be said, was said; and what needed to be heard, was heard. Being on the panel, I didn't take notes. Since much of what was said was emotionally resonant for both the speakers and the listeners, I want to be careful not to misrepresent the other panelists.

As I've said here a few times, I first heard about this book on the concom email list, after a discussion about PoC safer space at Wiscon.

PoC safer space at an sf convention is the kind of issue to which I have an instinctual liberal/Kumbaya response. "Of course, if it's what they want, and it makes the convention better for them." The ease of this response is aided by the Good Bad Example of someone on the committee who strongly objected to PoC safer space. His objections generated a fair amount of heat, but finally some light.

In reading the book, I thought there were two places that specifically addressed what was happening at Wiscon. The first was practically a direct quote of concom email discussions: At a conference, Tatum was asked by a visibly angry White woman, "what if I tried to set up a Whites only breakfast meeting?" And Tatum said words to the effect of "that's a great idea." It's long beyond time for White people to begin talking with each other about racism and privilege, how they unfairly benefit us, and what we can do to share and/or dismantle them.

The second part that directly addressed Wiscon was the chapter about a Boston high school, where Black students were bused in from all over the city. In many cases, there would be only one or two Black students in a class. The school instituted a PoC only study hall. At first, this had to be compulsory, to overcome the Black students' own resistance to it. But they soon found that it helped tremendously: They began to recognize each other in classes and in the hallways, they began to spend time together outside of school, they found out who came from the same neighborhood or similar backgrounds. Just substitute "WisCon" for high school and "flew in from all over the country" for "bused in from all over the city." But you already did that. ;>

So, that's the intellectual response of a white guy. I've seen how Wiscon paying attention to access issues has improved the convention for everyone (not least, signage and traffic flow on the 6th floor). The access issues that Wiscon faced a couple years ago are only now being addressed by other committees. The same applies for PoC safer space.

The stories shared by the other panelists reached an emotional depth I wasn't expecting. I think, in some cases, they were surprised by it as well. In all three cases, they hadn't sat at the PoC kids' table at the cafeteria. But they had felt the same general alienation from one's supposed peer group that every White fan of my acquaintance has felt.

Discovering fandom for them was like tasting a new recipe that isn't quite there yet. The fans got the geekiness, true; but they were no more clued in than any other random bunch of White people. Discovering the Carl Brandon Society, and the PoC safer space at Wiscon, was like the herb that makes the sauce come alive. Here, at last, was a table they could sit at. The discussion was much wider ranging and more moving than this metaphorical gloss suggests. Each panelist's journey to that table was personal and unique. There were different doors opened, different things let go.

We also talked about how this reflected on their development of racial identity. It seemed to me that finding other PoC fans made the other panelists not only more comfortable being fans, but also more comfortable being a PoC. They could finally admit to these two sides of their personality without having to hide one or the other.

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