Hello all and Happy New Year!
Inspired by MLK’s Day as well as a book I just recently ordered from Amazon, I decided to try to put words to my story with issues of race. Much training in multi-cultural systems and diversity sensitivity has reminded me that most white people like me do not have to engage with race in their lives if they choose not to, of course. But when we do, it can be eye-opening, humbling and fascinating as all get-out.
So here goes.
I was born in Houston, but don’t remember it. My earliest memories are here: Prince George’s County—what I later learned was the wealthiest majority-black county in the nation.
Growing up, I had a variety of friends, but a large majority of them did not look like me. I do not recall thinking much of this. I thought ALL schools celebrated Black History Month with the same regularity and devotion each year.
When I got to middle school, not only did my sister and I stick out like a sore thumb, but I also was a HUGE nerd.
I fit many of developing stereotypes my then-friends had of white people. I was bookish, uncoordinated, bad at sports, and had no idea how to be cool in a normal way. I sought a different social circle because of a lot of rejection and started going to a youth group at a friend’s local church (which in a different story got me involved in a faith life I had never encountered previously). Yet this youth group, in retrospect may have provided the comfort and anonymity of once again being in the majority group and not being scrutinized for little mannerisms that could give away the fact that I no longer fit in. Ironically, of course, I learned that this is how people who are actually minorities feel all the time trying to blend in at jobs, in neighborhoods and in social circles where they stick out like a sore thumb.
When I started dating, it was preppy, school-smart white guys who played lacrosse and guitar and also went to youth groups. I still don’t know how much this was intentional. I built my confidence back up in high school where the racial diversity was about 50/50 black and white (not that diverse if we are speaking literally because it only includes two races). I had a dear friend who was black, but later realized he did not feel he fit in with many people either because of his sexual orientation. I had a good friend who was Korean, adopted into a white family and did a lot to fit in and actually be popular including dying blonde streaks over her gorgeous black hair and making fun of others to (successfully) deflect any negative attention away from her. I have to give credit to my high school. There were no “mostpopular” people, perhaps due to the large size (700) of my graduating class and the fact that everyone fell into different groups and the popularity strata remained within those groups. I did not keep in great touch with any of my friends from my earlier years and I thank God for Facebook to now at least be able to see the occasional updates.
I chose a faith-based college that ended up being more white than my high school. I was struck by the different experiences of fellow students, some of whom had never even had a friend who was not white! I was shocked by that. I did not realize that that was more common than I ever thought. And where my ill-informed adolescent reasoning led me to believe that the racial disparities in income, housing, poverty, etc were due to poor individual choices, I began to take classes in Sociology that turned my worldview upside down. Namely I learned that white people got a head start that we are still benefiting from today over generations of unearned wealth and privilege. This was revolutionary to me and at first I resisted this infuriating fact, thinking “well I knew PLENTY of black people where I grew up whose houses were just as big and who did just as well”. But more and more the facts prevailed. My hometown was the exception and not the rule. This country still had a lot of work to do. And me along with it.
I moved back to Washington DC and lived in the city for a year after college, interning and living in the Columbia Heights neighborhood which many residents will know what I mean when I say “Columbia Heights BEFORE the target”, meaning the explosion of gentrification that took the neighborhood from a “bad and dangerous” one (aka majority black) to one that is the most coveted because it is within walking distance to Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle and U Street. When I lived there, I was often asked how I could live there without fear by concerned relatives and well-meaning friends. A lesson I came to learn was that people who were in the neighborhood first just want respect. Conveying fear of people who did nothing to you of course is going to make them defensive, angry and perhaps even more likely to want to intimidate you. At least that was my experience. Keeping my headphones out of my ears and making eye contact as I walked around those neighboring blocks day after day made me feel very comfortable there.
I went to seminary and started preparing for life as a minister. I was more than a little disappointed to arrive at this prestigious seminary and see blatant self-segregation in our cafeteria. Even HERE where I thought we were so progressive and enlightened, people stuck to their own,whether intentionally or not. And that cycle was hard to break out of. The turning point for me was taking a real risk. I took a class called “Ethics and Politics in the Black Community” (not the risk, that was a great class) and going up to one of the only other women in the class (a black woman) after one session and asking her to have coffee. Thank goodness that woman had such an open heart and generous spirit because she remains one of my best friends and the officiant at my wedding. We have had more honest conversations about race than I could ever have hoped to have. She came from a similarly affluent black family to many who I grew up with and her mother would end up becoming the President of a national organization of accomplished black women. We also acted as bridges for each other to cross the “cafeteria table divide”.
During this time, I had a bad break-up and took up online dating for the first time. You may wonder what this has to do with race. Well, I had gained a good bit of weight in the years since college and with my extra curves, I could not help but notice that the main men I was getting attention from on these sites were not white men. The insecure woman in me thought about this a good bit and went with it! I liked being appreciated for my beauty without having to be a stick figure. I dated different kinds of men during this time, but I could not help but notice that going out with a couple black men got me a few unexpected comments. My ex (who is very liberal) caved to a lot of insecurity about sexual comparisons to these men that were based largely upon stereotypes. Friends said I had a “thing for black guys”. This embarrassed me because I did not see it this way—merely as being open to whoever struck my fancy.
I met one very special guy named Jason. We romanced, dated several years, weathered a lot together and ended up getting married. So that means we are in an interracial marriage.
My kids will never be white. I think this seems like the wave of the future. I see more and more “ambiguously raced” kids every year and it makes me really happy. Maybe more and more it will so difficult to tell what people’s backgrounds are that we will begin having new conversations, telling new stories. I am encouraged by this great video of kids reacting to a “controversial” Cheerios commercial featuring a mixed race couple just this last year.
So will the problem and ghosts of racism haunting this country ever fully be gone? I don’t think they will, at least not in my lifetime. But just as we will always remember things like the Holocaust to learn lessons of peace and equality for each new generation, so we need to keep alive the painful stories of this legacy in our country and not cease to ask the hard questions that help us be better, and not more complacent with each passing year.
Other resources I like if you are interested:
Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege
Race Story Rewrite
PBS Documentary: Race the Power of an Illusion
Understanding Race website
Resources for the Classroom and Parents at Home