The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

Letter to the Editor: Race in Habitat for Humanity

What do we do at a Starkville Habitat work site, you ask? We build a house. We also destroy expectations. When I ask a first-time volunteer at the end of a work shift, “What did you expect when you signed up for this?” more than just a few times the response has been along the lines of, “I expected a crusty old supervisor wearing a tool belt being perpetually annoyed at my lack of skills and barking at me when I make a mistake.”

Sadly, some who have volunteered at other Habitat sites report this is often true. But sometimes a story evolves through my interaction with the volunteers worth remembering and telling. I keep these stories in a mental file folder.

Stories can be mechanisms for establishing relationships. They are also a means of breaking barriers and revealing hidden truths. 

In the course of building two or three Habitat houses every year, I encounter hundreds of volunteers. Most of them are university students, and while many are from Mississippi, a fair number come not other states and even other parts of the world. Working with new homeowners and the incredibly diverse volunteer base gives me a chance to explore how these groups interact and overlap.

The larger context of our work is Mississippi. Mississippians are a people who have learned to embrace contradiction. We have to carry the weight of our history, for better or worse, and maybe embracing contradiction is what keeps us sane. 

My friend Dave, aka “collateral damage,” has been with our crew since he retired in 2015. A career teacher and school administrator, Dave has been a wonderful addition to the group. Dave is a generous soul and often shows up with morning snacks.

One morning he arrived at the jobsite with a 9×12 pan of blueberry biscuits. I grabbed the pan and began passing out biscuits to the student volunteers. There were a couple biscuits left when I made my way back to the front of the house and encountered a female African American student. Instead of introducing myself, I simply asked “Would you like a biscuit?” The young woman, never breaking eye contact, replied, “What’s in it?” Maintaining eye contact, I replied, “What? You think I’m gonna poison you cause I’m white?” 

Without wavering, this volunteer said, “Maybe.”

My only option at this point was to take a bite out of a biscuit. I said, “These are really good. You should try one.” And she did.

I had a new friend won over by the mutually blunt acknowledgement of the ever-present elephant in the room called race. A safe space had been established for further conversation. My new friend Sasha was from Columbus. She grew up in generational poverty and is the first of her family to attend university.

Another student volunteer that day was AJ, a young African-American man from Olive Branch. AJ is a very personable and polite young man who comfortably interacted with our crew of supervisors and the student volunteers.

AJ and I were working in one of the rooms when Sasha, who had just completed a task, stuck her head in the door and asked what I needed her to do next. I told her to join us and had her puttying nail holes in the base board. I listened to Sasha and AJ converse as we worked, and watching those two interact made me curious about their backgrounds and how they were raised. 

I looked at AJ and, while rubbing my left palm with the fingertips of my right hand, said, “AJ, what does this mean?” With a blank stare, he said, “I have no idea.” I glanced at Sasha and raised an eyebrow. “It means white privilege,” she said. I looked back at AJ. “Why don’t you know this?” I said. He just shrugged his shoulders. The answer, of course, was AJ was raised in a middle class home, whereas Sasha was not.

It is the custom of our gathering of old men to have lunch together between the morning and the afternoon shifts, I invited Sasha to join us and offered to buy her lunch. She accepted. We ate at a local Mexican restaurant with about nine or 10 people around the table.

I pretty much stayed silent and listened as Sasha and a couple of the men around the table talked about their experiences with race growing up. As we left the restaurant, Sasha confided it had never occurred to her as a possibility to sit around a table with old white men to talk about race.

The surprise ending to Sasha’s Habitat work day is most likely a function of learned habits of wariness when interacting with the dominant white culture.  Behavior rules learned, not simply to be polite, but as survival mechanisms.

When volunteers come to our jobsite, we–me and the volunteer supervisors–take pains to make sure the volunteers know we are all peers. I explain I am not to be addressed as “Mr. Breazeale” or “Mr. John.” Never say “yes sir” or “no sir.” Just call me by my name.

This causes great confusion to Southerners. The comeback is usually, “Well, my parents taught me to show proper respect to elders and authority figures.” This is the response of both blacks and whites. This does not mean the response is race-neutral. Quite the contrary.

I grew up in the era of Jim Crow. When a person of color addresses me as “Mr.” or “Sir,” I can only hear it with the ears of another time. There were unwritten rules for interaction and everyone knew his or her “place.” If you were white, you were taught to show proper respect to elders and authority figures because that is the way polite society works.

Unless, of course, you were addressing a black person. In this case, the rule no longer applied. If you were black, you were taught to show proper respect to elders and authority figures because this is the way polite society worked–if you were talking to black people. If you were addressing whites, however, this was an obligation and a defense mechanism. Breach this rule, and bad things were likely to happen; the perpetrator has forgotten his place. This even applied when addressing a white child. The image of a grown black man being obligated to address an eight-year-old white boy as “Mr.” or “Sir” while the child is within his rights to refer to the man as “boy” is certainly an evil which should never again be tolerated.

As I give this brief history lesson, the volunteers begin to nod with the understanding of why my rules are what they are. Many seem shocked that such a society ever existed. Sadly, so many of our university students are unaware of our history. 

At Starkville Habitat, we endeavor to provide a welcoming and safe working environment for our volunteers. This, to me, is the minimum requirement. Sure, we are building a house.

I think we are also building something transformative; certainly for me and our volunteer supervisors, but also for the homeowners, volunteers, the community, the university and eventually, planet earth.  We are building relationships and creating stories.

What’s the takeaway, you ask? If you do not want to get caught up in a story which carries you to a wholly unexpected ending, avoid any old white guy who happens to be carrying biscuits.

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The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University
Letter to the Editor: Race in Habitat for Humanity