My school has had a service hour commitment for as long as I have been enrolled: 11 years. In fact, in order to graduate you have to complete 100 hours of community service, which the administration has dubbed “service learning”. It seems that the school wishes to enlighten students to the realities of those who are not privileged, and also to show them what it means to give back to the community as we are often those taking from it.
Periodically the school sends out service learning opportunities in emails for those that are having trouble finding them on their own. Coupling how I had not completed any service hours this summer with not being extraordinarily busy, I decided to offer my time to a tennis tournament and silent auction event that would take place over the span of two days.
When I arrived to help set up the first day’s event I noticed no other people of color but assured myself that more would appear once the auction took off.
I was wrong.
One of my fellow black classmates did arrive but not as an attendee but instead as a volunteer. And there we were, stuck in a sea of people that very well looked like they could have been the mother, father, aunt, uncle etc. of any of our majority white classmates.
One woman that arrived with something to be auctioned visibly jumped when I told her where she could place her item, and then seemed maddened by my speaking to her. You’re probably wondering if I’m implying that we were intimidated by being around so many white people, but that was not the case. What made the situation harrowing was the tasks we were asked to complete as a part of our volunteering while being black. For over four hours, my friend and I threw away Michelob Ultra and Bud Light bottles, barbecue sauce stained plates, and dirty napkins that had been left by the mass of white people we had been presented with when the event swung into full effect. The Southern accents and Seersucker shorts of the drinkers only made the work more acidic in my mind.
As a result of being the only specks of brown in the room, we were stared at as if we had two heads with six eyes on each. Some people overcompensated by trying to be nice and ask “who” and “how” I was, although they could plainly see me picking up their half eaten catfish strips and red lipstick stained cups. After a while, I began saying that I was the event planner which was met with surprised faces and open mouths. However, there was truly no question about “who” or “how” I was in my mind because I felt like the help. Those who did not pretend, or try to be nice, just stared and seemed puzzled as to why I was at the event, but simultaneously seemed content with what I was doing. I even carried ice back and forth in a large bucket in the rain so that the guests could have it for their drinks. I was two shoes and a set of clean clothes away from being a slave.
But I needed the hours.
The next day was the actual tennis tournament. When I arrived I saw some of the same people, but many different faces as well. Thus I was hopeful that more brown faces than my own and my friend’s would manifest.
Once again I was wrong.
For the second time, I was gawked at and used as a service boy. One lady, in particular, said, “Oh I feel so bad asking you, but could you get me a water?” A few hours later this same lady asked for a banana and said “I just love this. Not having to go and get it myself” and smiled along while releasing a light chortle. I mumbled a “don’t get too comfortable sweetie” under my breath and rolled my eyes when she turned around. I wonder if she heard me.
From 9:00 AM to 2:00 PM no people of color arrived to swing tennis balls with the mass of white aristocrats.
Reflecting upon both days, I find it amazing how well the events were able to stay so segregated. White people rallied together and enjoyed their own company without the intrusion of people of color that they would probably presume to be beneath them if enjoying the same commodities. Instead, they reveled in seeing people of color as servants.
To a white teen at my school, I’m sure that this experience would not have had such a lasting effect on them. But for me, it did, because it felt as if the white people I was engulfed in were the most comfortable I had ever seen them be. They were in a setting that was all white except for those who were servicing them. Could this be the kind of setting where my classmates would feel most relaxed? Were they irritated by my presence? Are they being genuine when they are nice to me, or are they overcompensating as a formality?
I not only received 11 hours and 30 minutes, but also an affirmation of the ideas I had about the standing of racial differences in America, and the reason that you cannot just be colorblind.