White Girl Race Talk

I got on the train and noticed only shades of brown from milky 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 in this city 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 soft 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 “White” enough to be safe.”

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 African-Americans 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 in due time if there was reason. And let’s face it, in this world, sooner or later there would always be a reason. I had experienced huge fights with my mother over dating “Black” guys, but that didn’t push me one way or the other because I gravitated to the people I liked – smile, smarts, eyes. Who made me think and laugh, that was who I wanted, regardless of skin tone.

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.

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Once in Brooklyn, I heard race. Shopkeepers and customers switched languages and dialects between each other with what felt like a magical ease until I learned more. What they were doing, with the dialect switch was code switching. Code switching is a tool to flow between the culture you are part of versus the cultures where you feel like a visitor and so switch into the guest dialect- totally an oversimplification and just writing about it make me uncomfortable. I can’t imagine doing it with the smoothness of opening a door. 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.”

A couple years in, we rented an apartment further into Brooklyn 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. 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. 

I 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.

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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 to 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.

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I lived in Brooklyn 2005-2008. This post was originally written in 2015, but feels too fresh. I continue to do work, learn, react, and listen better.

Racial America 2017

A four-year old recently announced to her mother, “I have white skin so I am special.” The mother, instantly horrified and confused, asked on social media how her child, raised in such diversity with equality minded parents, could make such a proclamation of preference? How does she explain to her child: It’s not about skin color? How does she open the conversation of racial equality with a four-year-old? She doesn’t understand. Her child’s daycare is diverse. Their friends are diverse. Why would, how could her child come up with this idea?

Even as the most liberal, accepting, diverse white community member you can be: actively listening and speaking up against racial inequality, leading your neighborhood in posting Black Lives Matter signs, talking to the police about non-violent communication, ensuring all the non-white kiddos get invited to your kids’ parties, pointing out possible cultural appropriation of Kwanzaa and Dia de los Muertos. Even when you do all that and painfully wince at your white privilege: You are still white. Painful as it might be to your liberal sensibilities, white America is special. It isn’t about what is right or fair, it is simply the current climate of this land.

Allow me, for a moment, to return to the four-year old’s statement. What she said is a fact of American life, observable by a four-year-old. Let that sink in:

I have white skin so I am special.

With storms there is often a last violent surge before the storm loses its power and passes, leaving bad memories, but a brighter future in its wake. This country’s race relations have been in a tumultuous storm for the last sixty years. We have made enormous strides toward equality and basic human rights to all. We have made strides, but we are not there yet. Often, not even close. Let it not be forgot, there are grandparents amongst us who can recall acid being added to pools to keep Black families out and lynchings along highways. This country and its Really Bad History is figuring out how to do things right, but it is nowhere near finished.

As good, common sense grown folk, we know our neighbors’ differences do not reside in the color of their skin. There is no difference, yet there is great discrimination. At this moment in American history, I choose to believe America is experiencing a last violent surge of its race storm. It seems, during the pre-cameraphone calm, we lulled ourselves with a post-racial campfire song of equality and a great fairness that was now the streets of America. As that fire was fanned with growth and goodness, the truth was burned away by a new technology. The streets were now being filmed in real time and the live feed revealed discrimination and a criminal hatred still burning. Now, the storm of America’s injustices pushes back with one more violent surge and we have to keep up the fight for equality or lose our heart. We are still broken. Race is still very much a divide.

Young children see people on TV, the politicians & talking heads. They see who is on street corners and who drives fancy cars. They see who teaches them and who cleans up after them. The children see who we talk to, where we share our time and voice, who we feel sorry for, who we endorse. The children witness our glances, hand wringing, our pop culture choices. They see who is cast as the criminals and winners. They know who is picked first in class to answer questions and who is thought to be best at sports. They hear the news and our deep liberal sighs of “wish we could do something” when another Black child is reported shot by a police officer. They hear the news when a Black mother is killed in her home. They see the video when a boy like their big brother is killed while wearing a hoodie and kept his hands in his pockets too long. A boy like his brother, except with Black skin so not special enough to live.

So yes, yes, that four-year-old white child may say, “My skin is white. I am special” and that child is stating a heartbreaking truth of America 2017.

As parents who say we want to be the change, we must embrace those statements. We must lean into the discomfort and fear that we feel when we hear them. We have the ability to embrace and shatter those statements, transforming those painful moments into sharing and explanations of equality. For our children, the effect of those words has not yet been locked down so we have the ability to destroy the fabric of our cultural divide and weave something new. But we must be active in our actions. Eliminating discrimination is not just about protests and liberally-appropriate posts on Facebook, eliminating discrimination is a slow process that begins with breaking down cultural misunderstandings and getting to know the people we discriminate against for who they are. If you know a person, they are not the shell and stereotype of our perception. When you begin interacting with people they become the people. We the people.

We must be able to see and call our children on societal bullshit that seeps into their (sub)conscious reality. We must get off our attention sucking devices and away from our televisions in order to watch and interact with our children. Take them to places to naturally interact with other kids – not simply curated play-dates. Go to public swimming pools and museums and open concerts with outdoor picnics in new neighborhoods. Make it a habit to visit libraries in new neighborhoods and go to story-time with kids that don’t look like your kids. Talk about the world and your experiences together. Talk to strangers, meet the people who share your space. Lean into the unknown and remove yourself from isolationism. Kids know when we create bogus actions to feel good about our cultural quota. Admit to our children that our culture is fucked and segregated. Do not paint it pretty. Let it be known our wrongs are only reason to do more and be more aware.

As white folk, we are a culturally designed special and we have a responsibility to use that special to bring the oppressed to an equal footing – to deconstruct the oppressor. If we are in a position to hire, we can refuse to review resumes with names. If we teach, we can encourage non-white children to excel simply by calling on them more often in class. When we walk down a street, don’t cross over if a non-white is headed toward you – instead say hello and keep on with your business. Don’t assume you know how to help. Don’t put yourself in someone else’s place. You will NEVER be in that place so instead ask and listen.

I feel like an ass for even writing the last couple paragraphs because I know I haven’t done enough to listen, to build bridges, to create the change I espouse. I believe it’s not too late to try. It’s not too late to try again and fail and try again.

To shift a touch, in February of this year, in Austin, there were several weeks of intense ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) activity involving raids and deportations. My daughter has a friend at school whose family all speaks Spanish, very little English. One night, my daughter told me, “I thought some of Lydia’s family might be undocumented. I asked her if everyone is ok. She said everyone has papers and gave me hug.” My child is eight. There is nothing she could do to help, but she reached. She said, “I hear your story.” That may be a place to start.

I want to hear your story. I want to try harder. Can we begin there?

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