EUGENE, Ore. — It’s a cliché about the classroom that your students teach you as much, if not more, than you teach them.
“Where I come from, the girls have only three choices,” one of my students, in her early 20s, told me of her hometown in Eastern Oregon. “You get married, you go to beauty school, or you join the Army.” She was herself a veteran of Afghanistan.
Compared with other places I’ve lived (Los Angeles, Mexico City), Oregon is very “white.” (It’s a term so loaded, I feel I should use quotation marks at least once.) Listening to my journalism students at the University of Oregon and reading their assignments have given me many insights into the hurt, confusion and fortitude of people who could be called “white.”
I thought I knew about white people already. In the 1960s and ’70s, I grew up as a Latino (a term we didn’t use then) in the multiethnic Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles. My grade-school friends included an Armenian kid, an Eastern European émigré and a guy from Arkansas, all of whom were white. In class and on TV, I was fed a steady diet of stories featuring people with skin paler than mine: the Pilgrims, Abraham Lincoln, “The Great Gatsby,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Godfather,” “Patton” and so forth.