I have been challenged by my sisters in faith to speak out about my own experiences of racism. You might wonder, what experiences could I have? I am a white woman, after all. Blue-eyed, golden brown hair, very pale. But I have been challenged by recent events to articulate my part in this overwhelming system of white privilege.
So I admit that didn’t know brown people’s hair was different until high school, when a friend mentioned having to get her hair “relaxed,” and I was confused because up until that point, I thought hair was hair was hair. I admit that since then I have been curious to feel how the texture is different from mine – though I have never asked, and would never touch another person’s head without their permission.
I admit that I have wondered whether people of color need to wear sunblock – “Of course they do,” I tell myself, “UV rays affect them too, even if they don’t turn red as a lobster as you do in the sun.” The anthropologist in me notes how different cultures hid their (aristocratic) women away indoors to be pale, for being darkened by the sun indicated that you were a laborer.
I admit that I feel awkward or unwanted when I hear people lamenting the lack of diversity in my profession. I admit that affirmative action sometimes makes me feel uneasy, because I wish we lived in a world in which we could each be judged by merit and potential. I remind myself that meritocracy would only work if everyone had access to the same opportunities and resources and that the world we live in is drastically unequal.
I admit that my ancestors in South Carolina owned slaves. From what I’ve been told, it was a small farm and they ate meals with the family, but they were still slaves and I wish that was not part of my heritage.
I admit that I didn’t know watermelons were a racist symbol against brown people until the Boston Herald cartoon depicting Obama using watermelon-flavored toothpaste in 2014. I worry at how many other images or symbols are racist that I simply don’t know about.
I admit that I get confused about vocabulary. Should I say black, brown, people of color, African-American, Latino/a, Chicano/a, Xicano/a, Hispanic, Asian…? Especially since Asia encompasses Russia, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, East and South Asia, and parts of Oceania!
I admit that because I grew up in San Antonio, I am more comfortable around Latinos than other peoples of color – except for the fact that I never properly practiced my Spanish and always feel ashamed when I hear people speaking the language I’m supposed to be mostly fluent in.
I also admit that I love the fact that the majority of my students are people of color. That sometimes I wish I weren’t white so that they could have a teacher of color, too. It isn’t right that nearly all of the teachers at my summer job are white, when the vast majority of the students are not.
I admit that I am sometimes envious of my students’ hair, how they can do so many things with it, whereas mine is flat and frizzy and boring and straight and only stays in braids when it’s wet.
I admit that I’ve always thought it weird when people would mention the color of a person’s skin when telling a story, but only if the color were some shade of brown: because, “The woman in the store,” is presumed to be white unless the speaker says otherwise.
I admit that I think it’s strange and wrong to have clothing or cosmetics or crayons labeled “skin colored” or “nude” when the only skin it sort-of looks like is mine and other white people’s.
And I admit that I have felt and do still feel awkward talking about race with people of color because I don’t know what to say, how to say it, and am afraid of unintentionally causing offense.
I don’t remember when I first became aware of racial difference. I have a vague memory of my older sister dating a black guy when she was in high school, and that was considered to be “unusual,” but I didn’t understand why. (I must have been five years’ old.) Our neighbors in San Antonio were Latino and I grew up playing with their children because we were the same age. Many of my classmates were also Latino, though my elementary and middle schools were largely white. My mom taught at a school in downtown San Antonio, and because our schools followed different calendars, I sometimes went to school with her when I didn’t have school for myself. At her school, I was the only white girl with long yellow blond hair. Everyone knew I was Mrs. C’s daughter. It was a strange mixture of feeling out of place twinned with being somewhat of an oddity and celebrity. I remember people wanting to touch and play with my hair.
Even so, my best friends in middle school included Priscilla (a Canadian whose parents were from Ghana) and Nupur (whose parents were from India), who were my first friends of color who weren’t Latino/a. I remember feeling awkward talking about race and American history with Priscilla, because I didn’t know how to talk about it with her. She wasn’t African-American since she was from Canada. Her ancestors weren’t enslaved in America, because her parents were from Ghana. I didn’t know how she fit in the narrative, and I, too awkward, never knew how to ask. Because I still keep up with her, she might read this blog post. I’m sorry Priscilla, for being so awkward.
I went to a different high school than I was districted to. The one I would have gone to was mostly white; instead, I went to a magnet program at a “minority majority school.” I was often one of two or three white girls in my classes. Most of my classmates were black, Latino, or Asian, as were my school friends. I distinctly remember going with a small group of students to a conference or presentation at another school in the district. As we walked across the cafeteria for to find a table for lunch, I was taken aback by the sea of white faces. Someone shouted at us, “Welcome to America!” I was so surprised that I turned and faced the direction the shout came from and shouted back, “Thanks! I’ve only been here my entire life!” or something like that. I remember feeling uncomfortable, guilty by association with the white person who shouted at us, while also feeling out of place in a room almost entirely white except for the group from my school. I continued to feel that way in college and grad school, both places that were predominantly white. I remember feeling a sigh of relief whenever I stepped off the train in London: I would realize how a part of me was coiled tight in mostly-white St Andrews, which relaxed upon seeing all the different shades and hue of human skin and different styles of dress.
A few years ago I read Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin, and I remember reading about one character’s fear when walking down the street at night and catching the unwanted attention of white men standing outside of a bar or shop. As a woman, I sympathized with that anxiety – I too have hoped to avoid unwanted attention – but I also knew that whatever I felt was only a fraction of what that character experienced on a daily basis in the early-twentieth century in the South. Even magnifying my apprehension in my imagination could not come close to the reality.
Despite all this, I’m ashamed to look at my Facebook friends and see so few people of color listed as my friends. I haven’t kept up with many of my high school friends. Out of about 170 Facebook friends, only about 10 are people of color. That’s ridiculous. Part of me responds by pointing out that roughly a third of that number are people overseas, from various countries, that my friends are at least internationally diverse. But that isn’t the point here, and I’m not here to make excuses to make myself feel better.
At the same time, I don’t want to commit “tokenism.” I wouldn’t dare befriend a person of color just because I wanted more friends of color. I find tokenism horrifying, unacceptable. No, I won’t just add a book to my curriculum solely because the writer is a woman of color. At the same time, I am conscious that most of my students are people of color and I want to reflect that in my curriculum choices. Sometimes that’s near impossible to do (e.g., a course on early British literature), but it’s something I have tried to keep in mind. More than half way through designing a course for this fall, I realized that most of the authors I chose happened to be women of color anyway, chosen by the merit of the text, not for the skin color of the author. I did notice that I have very few Native American and Asian women writers, though, so if you can recommend any short stories or poetry, please do so in the comments section.
But that last sentence in the previous paragraph leans towards tokenism, or at least, feels like it does. At the same time, though, I want to broaden my awareness of writers of color and read and support their work.
As I write this, I think of the conversations I’ve had with other white people about white privilege. Last summer, this summer, every time I hear of another brown person shot or stopped or blamed for their own misfortune, part of me rails against the injustice of it all. We are ALL made in the image of God! Each and every one of us, every human being, is made in God’s likeness, and for that alone deserve to be treated with dignity, let alone basic human decency. That part of me reels when I look at the news, when I see the ways white people respond, or their lack of response. Another part of me weeps at the evidence of a fallen and sinful world. I swing between feelings of helplessness, being at a loss for words, stunned by the absurdity of hate, and feelings of action and righteous anger, albeit hobbled by awkwardness and some level of ignorance, though this latter I am trying to remedy.
To my friends, colleagues, and students of color: I want to stand with you against this systemic oppression and injustice. I hope that you know that I see you as an individual first and foremost. I hope you know that I am trying to sound the depths of my ignorance and am willing to share what I learn with others who are also ignorant. I hope you know that I am on your side. I am sorry if something I have done or said, or something I have left undone or unsaid, has caused you pain or harm. As a fellow human in this crazy spinning world, please correct me that I may learn and that I may help others learn. And know, too, that I see you as a person wonderfully and fearfully made in God’s likeness, deserving of dignity and respect.
And so I end my #WhiteConfessions, though I suspect I will think of more to add to it later. Now I challenge you, my readers: What confessions can you make about your own racism?
Photo: Me and a few of my school friends after the high school graduation banquet for our program.