By: Rachel Gang
Are your eyes really that color? It’s a question that I was first asked two years ago while tutoring middle schoolers at a DC public school in the Congress Heights neighborhood of DC, not far from my current AVODAH placement at Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School. I remember uttering something similar to, “Yes they are; they’re naturally blue,” and then quickly changing the subject to help the student focus on the assignment at hand. At the time I barely considered the significance of that question, but it has repeated itself multiple times at Thurgood Marshall Academy, the charter high school where I now work.
Last week as I walked over to check in with a group of students working together, one student paused to look up at me and asked:
“Ms. Gang, your eyes, are they real?”
“Yes, they are,” I replied, and redirected the conversation the same way as when I heard the question the first time.
This question is not unfamiliar and generally something I don’t pay attention to, but its repeated presence prompted me to think carefully about how this short exchange between a few curious students and myself is symbolic of how I am physically perceived by the young adults with whom I work. I often wonder—how does my physical presence appear to my students? As a young white female, how would my actions or “white sounding” words resonate differently if they were coming from someone of another color?
I found myself reflecting (as this year encourages and often allocates time for) when the DC Corps members recently gathered in Spring Bayit, one of the DC AVODAH houses, to meet the Partners in Justice honorees. Marsha Weinberg, one of this year’s honorees, introduced herself by showing us an illustration of herself drawn by a young elementary schooler from southeast, a region in DC with one of the highest crime rates in the district. Brown-colored crayon filled-in Marsha’s skin. Seeing the crayon drawing of white Marsha, the “lady from the Jewish church” depicted as the same color as the elementary school student who drew it prompted me to ponder how the students with whom I work might actually be viewing me. At first glance, perhaps I’m just the young white lady with the blue eyes who’s always doin’ too much- a common response when I remind students for the fifth time to clean up their lunch wrappers from the basketball court or take out their homework when they arrive in the library for after school tutoring. I’ve learned not to fixate on how the noticeable difference between my physical appearance and those of my students might influence their perception of me as an adult. However, as we all sat in the Spring living room, I contemplated how much the injustices and inequalities that we see and experience throughout the AVODAH year have drawn me to possess an overwhelming desire for change. Even after discussing theories of social change and exploring social justice as a Jewish movement, I still struggle to believe that wishes for justice can morph into movements that provoke action, and eventually make change.
Seeing Marsha drawn as a black woman provoked me to share my own inclination: “I wish I was black.” I often think that being a young black woman might lead to a little less pushback from my students, and make my job a little easier. While no one said doing this work would be simple, perhaps, if I were colored in a brown crayon, I would hear “Ms. Gangssss, you’re doin’ too much,” a little less often.
Many days it’s easy to drown out the small questions in a sea of phrases such as guh, you’re doin’ too much, and the myriad of teenage colloquialisms that are uttered back and forth between high-schoolers. However, it is profound thoughts such as those one ninth grader recently shared in an after school club meeting, “Flaws are what make you human,” that keeps work from being too challenging. I’m also reminded that the boundary between black and white that exists in the city in which I work and live is not as transparent as what I initially thought.
W.E.B. DuBois’ once said, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” As I continue to learn during my AVODAH year, whether it’s at work, at home, or in the community, I’m beginning to think that perhaps W.E.B. DuBois’ saying still provides insight into what I notice happening in DC today. I may not be able to switch the skin color I’ve been dealt, or erase my white privilege, but, I do rest more at ease knowing that colors aside, there’s some recognition of acceptance and change out there in the one young mind who drew the white lady in the brown crayon. This change might just still be making its way to the adolescent brain.
As far as I can tell, creating a gray area between black and white remains an effort in progress. The more we realize how alike we really are as human beings, no matter what color we are, black or white, blue or gray, the more I buy into the claim that what I’m doing every day at a micro level contributes to working for a broader effort to create social change.
Rachel Gang is from Bethesda, MD and attended Bowdoin College. As a DC AVODAH Corps member, she is a Program Associate at Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School, which is a law-themed school that prepares students to succeed in college and to actively engage in our democratic society.