race talk as a white girl

I got on the train and noticed only shades of brown from coffee to dark earth. No one seemed to notice me and no one made space for me. I had no expectations of either. It was my first day of work and the train would take me from Brooklyn to Midtown Manhattan. On the way home that same afternoon, I got on the train and noticed a lot more creamy beige to pink faces. We got to my stop, the first stop in Brooklyn, and it seemed all the fair-skinned folks exited the train. That’s when I realized, I’d moved into Honkey Heights. I thought sarcastically, “Well, mom would be glad. I found the one neighborhood in Brooklyn that is safely white enough.”

I would walk down the streets of New York and see so much diversity. It was a thing I’d never really known growing up in Texas, then being in Colorado and stationed with the Navy in Washington. I’d worked with many people from the Philippines, as well as blacks and Latinos. I’d always gravitated toward people from other cultures and had dated many guys of varying skin tones – often not bothering to ask about heritage because it would come up if it was significant. I had experienced huge fights with my mother over dating “black” guys, but I still dated the people I liked – smile, smarts, eyes – regardless of color. My grandmother grew up in Arkansas in the 20s, she was unapologetically racist and I called her on it, but of course it was a quiet “house racism.” She may have been racist, but she sure would be friendly face-to-face, afterall, “Times have changed.” But through all that I’d never personally felt uneasiness or openly, public race negativity until I moved to Brooklyn.

+++

Once in Brooklyn, I heard race. Shopkeepers switched languages with different customers. Customers made barely under-the-breath comments about the immigrant shopkeepers trying to gyp or jew them out of change. High school kids hooted and hollered on trains, laughing about their day, or commiserating about having been slighted.

Kids threw around color descriptors (which while not negative, I’d never heard in public).

“You know that new girl?”

“The coffee baby?”

“No, fool, the darker girl with the tight baby dreads.”

When we later rented an apartment from a Hasidic family, the wife refused to shake my husband’s hand when we signed the lease and the husband would not take my rent check from my hand – rather I had to place the check on a counter and he would pick it up. They were not culturally permitted to touch Gentiles or opposite sex is my understanding now. 

I soon spoke to a shop owner who wanted me to be sure to know we had moved into a Puerto Rican neighborhood, not Dominican. (Which is also very different than a Dominica area, do not be mistaken.)

Cops would get on trains and I would see darker skin folks avert their eyes. Blue intimidation had arrived.

+++

This blatant race talk and behavior of cultural division shocked me. I thought I’d moved into one the most diverse places in the country and with that I somehow expected there would be openness and acceptance. Was I ever naïve.

The thing about it all however, was I never knew how Talk About It. I was the white girl from Texas, what did I know or what could I possibly contribute/change and more immediately was it any of my business? I was just one, insignificant, uneducated voice. Now, ten years later, as a mother, having grown through a divorce, our return to Texas, and a country stirs with ongoing racial tensions, I have that question even more.

As a white privileged (need we even put those two words together?) woman, I am intimidated to talk about race. I’m afraid I’ll insult someone or be misunderstood. I fear my good intention will lead to no progress so trying seems almost pointless. And before you tell me my fear is nothing compared to the fear of living Black in America, let me say I know I am being a fool to think all the things I think. I recently read an article that pointed out white people are “deathly afraid, even if unconsciously, of falling off the pedestal.”*

The balanced and sane amongst us so badly want to be in the moral and ethical side of race politics that we are frozen in a place of inertia that appears apathetic. I want to fall off that pedestal, but the problems of race in this country are So Big that I don’t even know where to start a conversation on race. Sure, I talk amongst my white friends and we wring our hands and say things need to change, but then we go back to sharing videos of cats smacking dogs.

And that might be just the thing we do not get as a country. As a social majority, white folks are like a bunch of damn cats running around acting like they are sharing space, but in truth getting everything they please and leaving the leftovers for the systematically disadvantaged. And minority groups are those poor, beaten dogs who get fussed at if they ever bark at the cat or growl when the cat, once again, steals their bed. They are told to be happy with having a new bed to share because they no longer have to sleep outside, but the problem is the bed isn’t really theirs and can get taken at any time for no good reason. And our police and laws keep the imbalance in motion. 

White folks are running around, perching high on our pedestals, and burying our shit so it don’t stink. When anyone tells us we should clean out the litter we give them a self-important swipe:

“Oh, but that’s not ME. I accept everyone.”

“I would speak out if I saw a cop out of line.”

“But the Civil Rights movement brought equality.”

“But I do everything I can.”

The reality is I might accept everyone, but what do I do to embrace those I do not know, those whose struggles I’ll never be able to truly sympathize with? How do I learn?

The reality is if I ever saw a cop behaving out of line, I’d likely be terrified to intervene. They carry guns and have no remorse over using them.

The reality is the Civil Rights movement started the change, but government/finance/private business continues to put barriers in front of equality.

The reality is I do not do everything I can because I am comfortable, scared, and embarrassed. I was born into that golden ticket of white privilege and I don’t know how to use it to leverage for others. What can I do? I suppose, to start, I will work to find that edge of the pedestal and dive off. I will make an effort to be part of hard conversations. I will not wait for those conversations to begin, but I will work to read and learn more history and start those conversations. When I see something that is unequal, whether local or distant, I will speak up and ask why. I don’t know if falling off the pedestal and making a fool of myself through my ignorance will help, but it high time I try harder because staying on the pedestal will definitely not create change.

+++

* http://www.onbeing.org/blog/transforming-white-fragility-into-courageous-imperfection/7701

3 thoughts on “race talk as a white girl

  1. “I’m afraid I’ll insult someone or be misunderstood.”

    The definition of insult: “speak to or treat with disrespect or scornful abuse.”

    You cannot accidentally disrespect or scorn me. They require that you intend the action. If you aim is to insult me then the problem is that you want to insult me, not the words you used to do it. Why does the insulted get to assume intent? When is the insulted responsibility to ensure intent? I watch the “privileged white people” get slung around by this fear that they might insult somebody.

    By the way, most of the white people I know come from the same or lesser means that I did. They work just as hard as I do and in many cases for less. I would be insulted if I were white and someone assumed I did not work for what I have.

    “The reality is if I ever saw a cop behaving out of line, I’d likely be terrified to intervene. They carry guns and have no remorse over using them.”

    This statement is about a cop. Many would not bat an eye if they heard it. I am sure you were not intending to offend cops, you have a lot of respect for cops. If I were a cop, I might think you were calling me heartless. I would probably even ask you for clarification about your statement. You would probably be clearer about your meaning, I would take no offense, and we would move on. If you said the equivalent about blacks (and happened to be white, because black people can say what ever they want and it is ok, that is unfair in itself), the conversation and mood would most likely be very different. I would have the right to be very offended immediately. If you worked with me you could lose you job. If you were on TV, you may never work in the industry again. All without your intentions ever requiring vetting. In many cases, your statement would be exaggerated and presented out of context. The worst would be assumed.

    At some point you “privileged white” are going to have to stand up and say enough.

    “It is not just because I have black friends or a mixed race nephew that I love. It is because I am not a racist. I consciously treat people fairly without considering their race. Unconsciously, I may make mistakes but when brought to my attention, I adjust, because it it the right thing to do. I need not be shamed by you.”

    As a man, black enough to be judged by my color, also white enough to be judged by my color, I give no one the right to judge me because some other black person did something terrible. Nor do I give them the right to assume my success is due to the lightness of my skin.

    And by “man”, I meant “far superior to any woman”. 😉

    Like

  2. Ever since I played roller derby and learned to identify girls by their bodies, I’ve felt a little frustrated by the arbitrary social acceptability of identifying people by extremely obvious physical characteristics. This is true of bodies: we’re allowed to notice that people are tall or short, but not that they’re heavy or tiny, or any number of other features. “Which dark-haired girl named Jen wearing denim shorts and a white t-shirt do you mean? The one who likes Twizzlers, or the one who likes candy corn?” “Huh? How should I know? I mean the one with the huge rack,” because sometimes that is the most identifiable thing to see across a room.

    Same of skin color. I was recently in a room with several old friends and two new Jens whom few knew well. One friend said, “I invited Jen to join us,” and I said, “Which one? The blonde or the dark?” and my friend scrunched her face at me and said, “The one who was crying earlier.” Oh. Because that’s a better descriptor than the fact that the crying Jen has significantly darker hair and skin than the other one. As a white girl I’m not supposed to be able to tell that other people are literally different colors, and sometimes very helpfully, identifiably different colors. “How am I supposed to find this one woman in a room full of 30 other women?” “She’s one of two black girls in the entire room. You’ve got a 50/50 chance of getting it right the first time. Also, she’s 25, and the other lady is 50-something.”

    If I’m doing something wrong here, I honestly don’t see it. It doesn’t make me feel un-racist to pretend I can’t see color, it makes me feel dishonest.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s