“White Girl on the Job”

On one hand, life at the Haven proves that poverty does not discriminate. People in need come from all walks of life, ages, religions and colors. That said, about sixty-five percent of the Haven’s guests are African-American–a majority. Recently, a UVA friend asked me “what it feels like to be the only white girl at my job.” Quite taken aback, I had to explain that not only was this assumption untrue, but it suggested that I am a racial outsider to the community I serve. His comment revealed that many of my UVA peers assume poverty in Charlottesville to be a “black problem,” exclusively affecting one population to the point of rendering me, a white volunteer, totally isolated in the building.

camillehavendeskThe idea that poverty could be simplified into a racial group issue is unfortunately not unique to my misinformed friend. Interestingly, this idea conflicts with the not-uncommon belief that people in poverty can and should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” to improve their living situations. In their study, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith identify this individualistic responsibility as an inheritance of a capitalist economy and, in the religiously political sense, a belief in personal accountability for salvation. The erroneous assumption then is that the inability to own personal accountability just “happens” to disproportionately affect African Americans in the Charlottesville community. Emerson and Smith confront some of the questions of race and poverty I face as a student ambassador between the Haven and the UVA community. For example, why isn’t systematic discrimination addressed for what it is, instead of denying a racialized America? How might faith be used as a catalyst for racial reconciliation?

An interview conducted by Emerson and Smith with Curtiss DeYoung particularly struck me. DeYoung, a white man, attended seminary at Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, DC, preached in an all- black congregation in Harlem, New York, and worked in a shelter for runaway youth in Times Square. DeYoung recounts, “I was completely out of my comfort zone the whole time in New York. I said to myself, I need a least an hour or two of comfort. I thought I could find a congregation of my own denomination, and there I would find people like me” (61). I identify with DeYoung. As a fair skinned, blonde college student, I am a poster child for the university world, and not the community with which many Haven guests are comfortable. As I mentioned in a previous post, I believe the novelty of my newness among the staff has shielded me from any outright negativity. The Haven is wholly a supportive and safe space, and significant conflict between staff and guests is uncommon. On the occasion that tensions bubble over and there is an issue, one of the white staff members involved in the conflict will inevitably be called a racist. It is an easy insult, because it immediately distances the two conflicting parties and aims to invalidate any genuine empathy. I do not think that anyone at the Haven is under the impression that racialized society does not exist. Working at the Haven has forced me to admit that our world is not colorblind. One of the most challenging things for me has been to realize that a barrier exists between many of the Haven guests and me, a barrier that I would rather not admit to. However, race isn’t really something that is talked about a lot inside the Haven. Among the staff, discussions on discrimination pertain to issues affecting all groups, such as substance abuse or criminal history.

The complex reality of race in Charlottesville is something I am confronted with more in conversation outside of work hours. Through casual conversation, I find that many of my university peers understand discrimination as an urban, downtown issue separate from our college world. Even when meaning to erase poverty and reconstruct discrimination, it is easier to pretend these systems of inequality do not exist in our own neighborhood. America’s complex history of race relations belies this societal dilemma. Emerson and Smith write, “the early white abolitionists opposed slavery but not racializaion. They were uncomfortable with these strange Africans, and, to put it bluntly, wished them to go away” (29). This nineteenth century attitude is not too different today. People want to erase poverty, but not welcome the impoverished onto their own block. One of Emerson and Smith’s conclusions is that the majority of their study subjects (white evangelical Americans) are willing to consider their congregations and neighborhoods open to integration and support creating personal relationships with members of another race, but resist any initiative that requires impetus on their end. They accept further movement towards inclusive community as appropriate and desirable, but do not wish to do any of the moving. For example, Emerson and Smith do not cite any instances in which a white interviewee said they would prefer to move to a more integrated part of town. UVA students rarely live east of 13th Street NW, lest the interactions with “townies” become too frequent.

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously stated that the most segregated hour of American life was Sunday morning at 11am. If one believes, as I do, that faith can be a unifying force, the faithful community must advocate not only for equality and acceptance, but unity. There is a significant distinction between equality and unity. In my anecdotal existence, awareness about discrimination is framed as a need for acceptance, tolerance, and equality between all people. Not often (or never) has it been framed as, “what can you do to actively diversify and unify your community?” Ideally, Emerson and Smith write, diverse community carries the pragmatic function of “expos[ing] whites, typically unable to understand or see the depths of racialized society, to a United States seen through the eyes of those experiencing its injustices” (55). Everyday at the Haven, I am getting a full force of education thrown in my face. Everyday carries a unique realization that some part of my life I thought was universal in fact varies for others. The Haven is a unique nucleus where a diverse Charlottesville is unified under an umbrella of need.

In unifying our community, I continue to believe that we cannot deny the self-selection of our social environments. My former professor, Dr. Valerie Cooper, taught her students, “We tend to be drawn to people who look like us when facing big issues like determination of faith or support through hardship.” However, poverty is not exclusive to any one denomination, any one community, or any one race. It is a human issue that must be faced with visions of unity and mutuality, not as a responsibility for one slice of humanity to bear. I am grateful to the many writers, thinkers, and scholars that instill a solid optimism for a deconstruction of racialized America. Emerson and Smith conclude their book with a call for evangelicals (and really, all Christians) to embrace both the creation of individual relationships and the condemnation of debilitating social structures as major actions to deconstruct racism in America.

Faith has a deep power to inspire action and hope. From the abolitionist movement to the Civil Rights era, religious faith and social movement have been inextricably linked, attesting to the power of faith to demand and realize change. Scripture like Galatians 3:26-29, Acts 2, 1 Corinthians 12:7 and Romans 2:9-11 make it easy to argue for biblical equality among all people. It is not difficult to make the case for increased unity among all people, with the accompanying acknowledgment that we are all responsible for the wellbeing of our brothers and sisters. There must be more than a simple call to action to alleviate pockets of poverty across town. Working in a very diverse climate of the Haven has been the greatest way for me to confront fallacies on racial poverty and to actively engage (if only at an individual level) in unifying the privileged college bubble with the sphere of Charlottesville. I anxiously await the day when no one will think to call me the “white girl on the job” or identify housing insecurity as a problem inherent in the African-American population, but refer to each neighbor as Brother and Sister.