Growing up, I never really identified as “white.” I knew that I was white, but it wasn’t of real interest or value to me and so it wasn’t a characteristic I defined myself by. My parents never had a sitdown discussion with me: “hey, so, just FYI, you’re white. Here’s what that means in our society and here’s how you might be treated because of it.”
Despite my disinterest in my own racial identity, I was interested in the history of race relations in our country. I studied and talked about these issues a lot in high school and college, but everything felt pretty theoretical.
In a truly ironic twist of events, I’m 23 and teaching a lesson on discrimination to a roomful of non-white middle school students who have never had a choice about whether their racial identity mattered or not because for whatever reason, being non-white is a defining characteristic in our society. Their parents or grandparents or aunts or uncles have all had “the talk” with them: “you’re black/Mexican/Puerto Rican/mixed/whatever and here’s what that means and here’s how people will treat you because of it.” And because they’ve HAD to have that talk and I haven’t, these students are staring at my white skin and saying that I can’t possibly understand their lives.
And they’re right.
For the first time ever, I really understand that I am white. And in this moment, I hate my skin color. I am so much more than your stereotype, I want to scream. I want to understand. I want to be understood. See past the skin color that I don’t care about to the real me.
This teacher becomes a student.
From then on, I live with a “double consciousness” (my apologies to W.E.B. DuBois for appropriating his term.) As I work with class after class of largely non-white students, I am constantly aware that I am white and that I have to work harder to prove myself to my students because of my skin color. Over time I learn not to resent this because anything I experience is just a tenth of the prejudice and judgment they experience on a daily basis because of THEIR skin color.
I’ll tell you what’s humbling–being the only white person in a room of 6th graders who have grown to trust you when they bring up how upset they are about Trayvon Martin. And you don’t know who he is yet because there hasn’t been a national uproar yet, so you look him up and then have no words for your students–your students who regularly walk to the convenience store down the street for chips or a slurpee or, yes, iced tea at night. Your students who cut through neighbor’s yards because they’re KIDS and it’s safer to walk on grass than the streets. Your students who might look suspicious to someone who hasn’t bothered to check their biases.
What do you do in that situation? Here’s what I did: I threw out my lesson plans for the next 7 days. We studied Trayvon Martin, Martin Luther King Jr., Ruby Bridges, and Rosa Parks. I brought in articles on the Martin case from a variety of sources and we analyzed them. We talked about racism and bias and prejudice and my students’ experiences with being judged. We listened to one another. We created posters challenging students to get to know one another instead of judging each other and we put them up around the school. And I acknowledged that I had privilege, that no one would suspect me if I was walking in a neighborhood at night or shopping in a store, and that I was sorry that these things happened to them.
I felt a lot of things. Mostly powerless.
Flash forward a year and a half. I now have a biracial daughter who I think is one of the most beautiful and precious beings ever created. And I still feel powerless.
I have specifically chosen to have a biracial daughter instead of a white one. When I say I “specifically chose” her, I mean that I checked a box indicating a “mixed/African American” child on our adoption application. There are boxes like that because there are people who don’t want a non-white child.
I begin to think about schools for my daughter and realize that we may someday need to move out of our district so she doesn’t fall into the role of “token non-white person” in her class. I realize that finding a more diverse school likely means moving to a worse school. Systemic racism is alive and well.
George Zimmerman is found “not guilty” and I see people celebrating. CELEBRATING. Regardless of what happened that night or your views on “stand your ground” laws, a high school aged boy who was out for a walk is dead because someone thought he looked suspicious and people that I know feel satisfied by this outcome. This will sound super judgey, but to me, that shows that they see a black teen as an “other”—not as someone that could be their own son. When someone dies in a tragic accident, no one wins. Hello. Let’s use this tragedy as an example of why it’s essential for us to examine and challenge our biases and work together to have a more understanding and less judgmental society. Not as a celebration.
I hear comments with racist undertones several times a month. I usually (nicely) challenge the commenter to explain what they mean by their comment. Discomfort always follows. Apologies never do. Often, I’m told that I’m supposed to “know what they mean,” presumably because I’m white. I DO understand what they’re saying; I just feel sad that they’re saying it.
CNN.com has a headline: “50 Years After King, Racism Lives On.” It’s been 50 years since MLK Jr’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” and CNN writes that racism these days is “more relegated to the private sphere than it was King’s day.”
I watch “The Butler” and sob because people were beaten and murdered so that my child could be secretly judged and discriminated against instead of overtly. Sure, she can vote, but can she walk through a grocery store without judgment?
We have so far to go.
I haven’t written or spoken much about my multiracial family before before because I’m not close to being an expert on race issues–I’ve taken a few race-related college classes, worked with mostly non-white populations in inner city schools for a few years, and had a biracial child, and those are all of my qualifications. The world needs less uneducated commentary and noise, not more (“White Person Discovers Racism, Is Appalled” sounds like an Onion article.)
But in “The Butler,” there’s a scene where Miss Annabeth sees mistreatment happening and says nothing. You can tell she disapproves of what’s happening, but feels powerless to address it in any real way. You hate her in that moment.
But what if I am her? What if my silence about the topic of racism (which comes from feeling overwhelmed and underprepared to address it…NOT from not caring about it) looks like compliance and agreement with the status quo?
So, I want to go on the record as saying: I very much care about this issue. I just find myself at a loss about what to do about it in any public way.
Here are a few things I am doing in my personal life:
-Trying my best NOT to be one of the 40% of white Americans who have no friends of another race. Thank you, awesome non-white friends for bearing with my total lack of awareness about your experiences and for being open to our friendships. They bless me tremendously.
-Reading. A lot. Today’s arrival from Amazon: “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race.” There are some GREAT blogs out there about understanding racism, too.
-Going to see movies like “The Butler.” Not closing my eyes during the difficult scenes and the truth they represent.
-Trying to be self-aware about the biases and stereotypes I have about others—not just the race-related ones either. We all have them. We need to call ourselves out when we see ourselves applying them towards others.
-Writing this blog post. Asking for suggestions of tangible ways I can get involved in the fight against racism and bigotry (I’m open to ideas!) And begging you to examine the biases you have before they affect my students, my daughter, and…you.
Okay, this is turning into a novel. I have one more thought before I go.
One of the hardest part of “The Butler” for me was seeing the cross appropriated by the Ku Klux Klan (as I know it was historically) and used as a symbol of hatred and division. I know the role that a perverted version of “Christianity” played in racism and slavery and it hurts my heart immensely. I was still feeling a little raw from the movie when I read:
“Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose. Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.” (Philippians 2:1-4)
Basically, if you believe that Jesus and anything He said is real, then act like it. Love one another. Work together on issues. View yourselves as partners, brothers and sisters even—all in this together. And don’t just believe that we’re “equal;” take it a step further and believe that the other person is BETTER than you. Can you imagine how our world would be if we all acted like this was true?
This is my goal. This is MY dream for myself and our society, inarticulate and uneducated and incomplete though it may be. I will not let myself feel powerless anymore.
I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do. –Helen Keller