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White People Sensitivity Training

“White people sensitivity training” was a subject that came up in conversation the other day amongst my friends. We were really discussing how people from disparate cultures, classes and backgrounds can react in a “peculiar” way to different situations. Sometimes, the disconnect between two groups of people is so unsurmountable that they might need “(insert culture/race here) sensitivity training.” Unfortunately, we learn most of that training “on the job” in every day life. On a good day, we think, well, she’s just different. On a bad day, we think, um, are all (insert culture/race here) people like THAT, like so BIZARRE.

Being a minority (though honestly living in New York City makes being Hispanic look like a majority), I grew up hearing that so-called people of color had to ‘walk the line.’ You couldn’t screw up and fall off the tightrope because if you did, someone, somewhere, would think that all Hispanic people were like that. Selling drugs? Well, of course, all Dominican people sell drugs, it’s the family business. (Groan.)

I think that because as a Jew, one is part of a minority, Jews also have to tread carefully. I mean, I don’t have a kippah strapped to my head and most people think I’m Pentacostal covered from head to toe, so unless people know I’m Jewish, I’m not too worried about my actions. (Though, probably I should always be.) But I think of all the guys , like my husband, walking around with kippahs on their head and that if they screw up in some way, everyone’s going to think…oh, those Jews. And that’s how horrible stereotypes are born…one misstep takes down a nation.

So, last night during improv group, I was wondering whether or not my coworkers needed sensititivy training. We had to create characters, pretend to be students on Show & Tell day. Our partners would then pick a position to hold during the Show & Tell presentation and the presenter would decide what kind of object the partner had decided to be. At one point, I did a yoga pose, I think, tree pose, with my hands up in the air and my partner decided I was a giant nutcracker and then engaged the class by describing in detail all my lovely attributes. Of course, someone made some comments about ‘little nuts’ and ‘big nuts.’

Most of improv was great but I became uncomfortable, in the sea of white people, when some of the group members decided that they were going to pretend to be well, “ghetto,” students. Somewhere deep inside, I felt uneasy. These “white people” could pretend to be ghetto students, all fun and games, but most of my Hispanic and African-American students struggled daily to learn how to codeswitch from acting “ghetto” to adopting societal norms.

During lunch with my rabbi, earler in the day, I told the rabbi and his wife about my husband’s latest cultural experience…watch Sir Mix-A-lot’s Baby Got Back music video. My husband says until he saw that music video, he hadn’t clearly understood the affinity that some cultures have with a large tuckus. When the Rebbitzen complained about worked out her tush, I told her she should tell people she was Hispanic and call it a day. I like big butts and I cannot lie…. The rabbi said that I was Jewish and I couldn’t make those kinds of racist jokes anymore. Damn, no one told me my Hispanic ethnicity card was getting revoked when I converted!

Should I be offended that these crazy white people were holding their own Ghetto Appreciation Day? Even though they’ve probably never lived in one? Was it bothering me that even though I’d actually lived in a ghetto, I couldn’t talk ghetto the way these white people could?

Reflecting later on the game, I realized that when it was my turn, I had picked a persona that I didn’t understand and that my improv group found amusing but not offensive. I decided that for my improv scene, I was a white trash kid snapping my gum and talking about a stuffed lion I got on the Las Vegas strip when my parents decided to abandon me for hours of gambling and imbibing alcohol. When the audience asked what I had decided to name my lion, I said that I had named it “Shitty,” because it wasn’t holding up really well after having been thrown out in the trash, flung out of the hotel room and run over by something. I probably should have throwin in that I was a Hilton, no?

Everyone was too focused on the fact that I had used a cuss word to think about who I was pretending to be in that instance. Strange, huh? My groupmates decided to be poor, black ghetto kids and during my turn, I flipped it to poor, white trash kids. I’m not sure what that says about anything.

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