I grew up in Mora, Minnesota where the population is 3,000 people and pretty much everyone is white. My half Jewish family was about as diverse as it got (and they didn’t even live there). Even though I eventually left and spent my high school years in the suburbs of the Twin Cities, I can count on one hand the number of students of color with whom I interacted.
College was more of the same; there were hardly more than a handful of students of color to begin with, and our paths rarely crossed. I volunteered with the Tacoma Community House and worked with many Latin American immigrants and a couple North African refugees, but other than that, my time before New Orleans was decidedly diversity-poor.
When I decided to teach in New Orleans, I knew that many – if not the majority – of my students would be African American. As a educated and progressive individual, I was concerned about my interactions with my students and their families. How could I express my desire to help without suggesting my way was better than theirs? How would I communicate that I believe that my student’s poor test scores are the results of limited opportunities and poor education, rather than the color of their skin? And, I admit, how would I convince them that I’m not racist?
I’ve fucked up more times than I can count. For starters, I never even considered that fact that in New Orleans, African Americans are the majority – not the minority – and as a result, many of the things I thought we would be dealing with weren’t big issues at all. I thought of my students as oppressed, but when I arrived, it became unclear who was the oppressor. For many of my students, there is a vague sense that they’ve been kept down by the white man, but I’d say most of them hardly know a single white man, let alone interact with one on a daily basis. I foolishly thought that, as an oppressed demographic, my students would be unified in that age-old need to band together and overcome. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Turns out, New Orleans has more murders per capita than anywhere else in the United States, and most of those murders are African Americans killing African Americans, and if that weren’t enough, the whole city is divided by projects, wards, and “cliques” (read: gangs) that hate each other.
And then my most serious miscalculation of all: I thought that my motives to teach – namely, wanting to help, wanting to share love – would be met by appreciation. I understand now, but for the first year, I was flummoxed. I can’t remember how many times I asked, “how can it be that I work so hard and put so much good and love out into the world, and all that I receive in return is a huge pile of shit?” and, “why do people hate me so much for trying to help?” For me, the equation was simple: good inputs equal good outputs. Everyone wins.
Things I did wrong: 1) I sat by and ate lunch with my white teacher friends every day. This is not to say that I did not interact with the other staff members, but mostly, I stayed where I felt safest and most accepted. 2) I got into arguments with veteran teachers and staff members over schedules and management before I had really even taught. 3) I thought I knew how to run the school better than my administration, and I probably didn’t conceal it very well. 4) I didn’t say “Good Morning” every morning. Mostly because every morning was a shitty morning, but that doesn’t matter. I should have known better. 5) I rarely, if ever, sought advice from my veteran coworkers.
And I wasn’t the only one. Most of my white teacher friends and I behaved that way – some better than others – but at some point, we all made things worse. I can see now how it would be almost impossible for people not to develop and “us vs. Them” mentality. I can also see that, although I felt my intentions were pure, more often they were seen as me saying, “well, ya’ll fucked this up. Step aside. I shall take my northern sensibilities, fancy education, and white, white skin and fix all of it. Thank you very much.”
As for my students… Although they were pretty vocal – and I’ve been called a “white bitch” or a “ghost” more times than I care to count – they were a bit more accepting. A lot of them even liked me. Many of them openly asked me questions “about white people,” and even though I explained that I couldn’t speak for everyone, they seemed to trust my answers. “Why ya’ll dress like that?” or “why don’t ya’ll be knowin’ how to cook?” or “why ya’ll talk that way?” My standard response: “Well, I’m going to assume by ‘ya’ll’ you mean white people, and although neither you nor I can say all white people dress or cook or talk a certain way, that stereotype exists because of different cultures. You know what? Not all black people dress, cook, or talk just like you, either.”
The stuff that really hurt though, were their accusations. When my students called me racist last year, I didn’t know what to do. I used to try and reason with them, “why would I come here every day and try to teach you if I were racist?” or “I could have stayed wherever I came from, but instead, I came here to teach you. Does that sound like someone who’s racist?” or “I expect the same things out of you that I would expect out of a white person, and that’s not racist.” Gradually, I grew impatient. For most of my students, I was the only white person they knew, and I was trying to help. “You know what? Just because I’m white and your black doesn’t mean that you can deflect attention off of your education by calling me a racist. I’m here to teach you. Get over it.” That’s me. Beacon of racial sensitivity.
I don’t know if I did right. I tried. I tried to explain stereotypes, and I tried even harder this year to interact with other staff members, to ask for their advice, and to shoot the shit with them. I talked about race. I welcomed those conversations, but I also did not tolerate being called racist and a white bitch. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but I expect better of you.” It bothers me too, when I’m driving down the road and I stop at a stop sign and some African American man I’ve never even met before looks at me and says, “white bitch.” You know what? I’m not even sure if it’s the white part that bothers me. I think it might just be the “bitch” part. I’m neither a female dog nor a mean person, but I am a woman, and what have I ever done to you?
In college, gender studies was a revelation. It made so much sense! I loved deconstructing traditional paradigms, and I recognized the truths of male privilege and patriarchy. I was pretty passionate about it.
Welcome to New Orleans, and kiss feminism goodbye. I’ll be the first to admit: I taught traditional gender roles. I had no idea how to teach both higher order critical thinking and basic social skills, and so I just taught basic social skills. “Don’t hit a lady.” “Act like a lady. Do not bounce your junk and talk about your c***.” “That is not how we talk to women. Please be respectful.” “It is not appropriate to talk about f***ing women in class.” “Please don’t talk to me that way.”
Sexual degradation and harassment happened daily, if not hourly. There was so much, I didn’t even know where to start. Last year, a student tried to pull of my skirt, and when I tried to remove him from class, I was told to keep him in his seat. To top it off, as far as I can see, women get walked all over in this culture. They’re expected to give it up, have and raise their children from multiple baby daddy’s and never expect an ounce of monogamy in return. I started wonder if traditional nuclear families and monogamy are actually things that protect women, rather than things that oppress them. Where are the fathers? Jail. Dead. Dealing. Another woman. The only thing more ludicrous than my state of childlessness was my choice to marry “so young.”
St. Bernard, Iberville, Lafitte, Magnolia, Melpomine, Florida, Desire, Calliope, St. Thomas, Fischer, and Hollygrove are all projects. Most of them were torn down after the storm and rebuilt as mixed income complexes. As far as I can tell, this has not improved the situation a great deal. Down went the bricks, and up went the town homes; on went the crime. Most of my students claim some affiliation with a project, whether they live in one now or not. When you ask a student where they live, they’ll tell you which project they lived in before the storm five years ago before they will tell you where they live now. To top it all off, each project is linked with a ward, and even if students don’t identify with a project, almost all identify with their respective wards.
The notorious 9th ward encompasses the Bywater, neighborhoods east of the tracks, and neighborhoods across the canal. The Desire and Florida projects were both 9th ward projects demolished after the storm. MOB (Money Over Bitches) and Rider Gang are a couple of the cliques in the area.
St. Bernard is in the 7th ward. It was torn down after the storm, and since then they’ve rebuilt Columbia Park, and mixed incoming housing project. The 7th ward has three cliques that I know of: G-Block SBP State Property, PCB (Prierre Columbia Boys), Young Ones, and MOB. The 7th ward encompasses parts of Gentilly and the area north of St. Claude. We technically live in the 7th ward.
Iberville is situated on the the west side of Treme, boarding Canal St. The project is one of the last remaining brick complexes in the city. North of the Iberville was the Lafitte, which was demolished last year. Both projects are part of the 6th ward.
I’m not sure which ward the Melpomene and Magnolia projects are a part of, but both are east of the Central Business District and south of Claiborne in an area called Central City. Magnolia was torn down after the storm, but parts of the Melpomene are still standing. The major clique here is YMM (Young Melph Mafia). Naturally, both projects flank Martin Luther King Dr., making the street one of the poorest and most crime ridden in the city.
To the south lies the St. Thomas project in the 10th ward near the Irish Channel and Garden District. Parts of the project remain standing and parts have been rebuilt into mixed income housing. The only clique I’m aware of here is actually a girl gang: BBTG (Big Boutted Thomas Girls).
Across the river and west of Algiers lies the Fischer project which has since been torn down and replaced with mixed income housing. Another girl gang is associated with the Fischer; they call themselves ABBB (About Being Bad Bitches).
Heading north from Claiborne is the Calliope, a huge brick project in the 3rd ward which has most been torn down. This is the home base for one of the more serious cliques: the Bird Gang which was actually under federal investigation and the Goonies. Finally, along Carrollton there are a number of “hoods” (as opposed to projects): there’s Gertown to the east, boarding Xavier University, Pigeon Town to the west, and N**** Town somewhere in the mix. Going south, we have Hollygrove, home of HHB (Hard Hittin’ Boys). All of these are located in the 14th ward.
The East is the area east of the canal and north of Chalmette. A ton of people migrated here after the storm, and the area is now home to a number of cliques, among them: BHG (Blood Hound Gang), the Flame Gang, and Hill Top.
With all these divisions comes beef. YMM has beef with HHB and BHG has beef with YMM… Uptown has beef with Downtown, and 7th ward has beef with the 14th. Beef can be started by any number of things: sleeping with the wrong woman or man, stealing drugs, or fights. They can escalate to murder and retaliatory murders.
On White Linen Night, the New Orleans’ upper class comes all out in full force wearing expensive suits and summer dresses. During Mardi Gras, people stand along St. Charles and Canal catching beads, doubloons, and cups off decorated floats. The Mansions in Uptown sit less than half a mile from some of the most dangerous projects in town, and it’s as if no one knows.
People are aware that the school system is failing, but do people know that I was in a closet classroom with 10 desks and 20 students? Do they know I had no text books? Do they know that my students are killing each other? I’ve never seen this kind of wealth in my life; neither have I seen this kind of poverty. To see them side by side is baffling.
My students and their families have lived in projects for over two generations now, and most of my students have no idea that there is any other way to live. Our social welfare system has failed them. Instead of putting the poor on equal footing, we gave them a way to live at the bottom forever. I have many students who have never seriously considered choosing an occupation. Why work when you can live and eat for free? Or hustle? Sure, there’s a lot of crime and life’s hard, but then again, isn’t that how it is everywhere? To us, the answer is a definitive no, but my students either have never left the city or when they did for Katrina, they where carted to some other urban center where they were grouped together and got to see more impoverished inner city citizens. If anything, the experience solidified what they already suspected: being black means being poor. Being poor means being uneducated and violent. The end.
This hopelessness spills over into every sector of the community: the politicians are corrupt and embezzle money, the roads are decrepit, social services are insufficient and slow moving, and even basic services lack standards. The attitude is scrape by and laissez les bon temps rouler.
I’ve been here two years. There is so much I don’t know, and just as I can now see how ignorant I was two years ago, I’m sure those who have lived here their whole lives or even a decade can see how ignorant I am. I make these observations as a visitor, and I know I am ignorant. If you have something to teach me, please do!