being white in america

I have been afraid to write about being white for a long time. When Trayvon Martin went down, I wanted to write, and reconsidered. (In my head: “Not a good idea to write when you?re angry.” “There aren’t any words to say that.” “Don’t add to the pain.”)

I?m going to take this risk today, and say the shit I have to say. (“Don’t preface, just say it.” “Fuck you, I’ll preface if I want to.”)

It’s 1970. My father is scared of young people, protests, civil unrest, race riots, the world going to hell.

Bussing for desegregation of schools is the new thing. I start school in the neighborhood. Dad says it?s a good thing they didn’t try to bus me. He’d move.

. . .

I’m six. There’s a girl in my class named Keisha. We pair up to do a book report. We have the great idea to make a jigsaw puzzle, by hand, with a picture from the book. We have fun!

(When I’ve thought of her over the years, I’ve thought we were best friends for a little while — I wonder if she ever did.)

Once, I asked her how her hair was so silky smooth (assuming its natural state would have been like mine). She told me her mom ironed it.

“Like, you are on the ironing board and she’s ironing it! HAHAHA?”



One day I told her that I’d been surprised to learn that her skin color wasn’t like dirt or paint, and wouldn’t rub off on me. It was permanent! After that day, Keisha never spoke to me again.

. . .

In my house, the N word was used. My mother used the polite southern form, nigra — pronounced “nee-gruh”. It was the same word.

She told me she wasn’t racist, that she loved neegruhs. She’d had a dear friend back in Cincinnati who was as sweet as can be. Wouldn’t hurt a fly.

. . .

My father told me that like everybody else, n- are fine one on one. It’s in groups that you have to look out.

. . .

We drive downtown every year to look at Christmas lights. It takes us through neighborhoods that are unfamiliar to me. I know we always lock the car doors when we drive there.

Years later, I begin to notice that we lock the doors when the people around us are darker.

I hear adults around me call those neighborhoods “dark”.

. . .

I’m a college kid in the mid 80s. I’m thinking about race.

I have ethics of my own — anti-racist ethics, among other things. And I realize that though I was never told, bringing home a black lover would be totally unacceptable. And also, I don’t really know any black people, so the chance of that was nil anyway.

. . .

I’m walking down the road in a somewhat isolated area. I’m cautious, but not scared. I see someone ahead, and my guard goes up. When I can tell their skin is light, I relax. They’re not dangerous. (Then I think “what the fuck!?”)

. . .

I’m a grown-ass woman. I’m not a racist. I’m driving down the street and I see a bunch of black kids along the side of the road. I know it’s a bus stop. I still tense up.

As I drive by, I see they’re wearing school uniforms and backpacks. They’re sitting there talking and waiting for a bus. I am an asshole. They are kids, and I am a white asshole.

. . .

(I’m crying now, writing this.)

. . .

I’m 10. All in the Family is on TV, and they’re talking openly about race. I get to wonder, think about things there isn’t normally space to think about.

The mini-series Roots. Holy shit, what horror! This really happened? _Really_? And it was white people who did this. Did I do this? Am I to blame? How can anyone live with this? On either side.

. . .

High school. A show on TV said this woman in Florida had discovered from reading her birth certificate that she was black. She’d lived her life as a white woman and was outraged at the indignity. What does it mean to be black? Why does having a black grandparent mean you’re black? Clearly, it’s because blackness is contamination. Which makes no sense.

The Jeffersons (the spin-off from all in the family) has an episode about the day MLK was killed, and rioting in the streets. They talk about violence and anger and empathy. I’m mesmerized.

. . .

Dad told me that black people killed Dr. King, and black people killed Malcolm X. That they kill their own leaders. I don’t know what he was implying. It turns out to be false.

By the time I graduate, I’ve complained enough that he stops using the N word. The 70s had accomplished something.

. . .

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

. . .

90s. I live in my old neighborhood, next door to the house I grew up in. It’s changing. My kids play with neighborhood kids. One is black. He takes a bike home from our yard, and we discover it there. I wish he weren’t the only black kid my kids know.

One day a pizza delivery person is shot on my street. I start considering moving to the suburbs.

I wonder about poverty. And race. And where I want to stand.

. . .

2001. I actually move to Oregon, a beautiful place, with mountains and oceans and deserts and waterfalls. I am amazed at the lack of people of color. Then I learn that Oregon’s way of dealing with the slavery issue was to simply outlaw being black in Oregon. In 1844, if you were in Oregon and you were black, you were subject to lashings every six months until you left. Soon after, it was illegal to enter Oregon. “Driving (or walking, or eating a sandwich) While Black” was actually illegal.

. . .

It’s ten years later. 2010s.

I move back to Ohio, to a neighborhood near my old high school. It was now almost entirely black. Groups of kids would stand around near the convenience store and apartments at the entrance to the neighborhood. They didn’t seem happy. I wondered if we could help.

. . .

I’m in high school. There are black lunch tables and white lunch tables. Our school is mixed, but not at all blended. I learn the phrase “what are you looking at?!” I wonder what the anger is about. I didn’t do anything!

. . .

College. I’m reading everything I can. I’m mesmerized by Dr. King’s philosophy (he is still one of my most valued teachers). I’m wondering why black neighborhoods are more dangerous. I am thinking.

. . .

Now I’m a grown-ass woman and my kids are grown-ass teenager-men. They’re white, nerdy, and one is not following gender norms. They walk to the convenience store one day, and come home bleeding. They’d been beaten up by a group of kids, all black. We don’t know why.

. . .

“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

. . .

We move again. I am relieved to see our new neighborhood is mixed, and people of varying shades are walking together. I am also scared. And mad at myself for being scared. The earlier attack on my kids haunts me.

. . .

College. There’s a drug war on. It seems to target people without much money. People who descended from slaves, and who descended from people treated as less than human, seem to have not much money. I start to see patterns. I am scared, sad, and feel incredibly powerless.

There’s a drug war on.

. . .

I’m 10. I don’t really understand barbies, but I do understand that most places, you can only buy white barbies. White baby dolls. I wonder what it’s like to be a black kid with a white doll.

. . .

I’m in Junior High. I learn that the problem is black-on-black violence. I learn that blacks are violent, and that’s why “the ghetto” is violent.

I learn this from adults around me, from school, from media, from the air I’m breathing. I wonder.

. . .

I’m 45. I’m walking in a densely populated city neighborhood, seeing ads all over. They have white people in them. Unless they’re ads for contraceptives or rehab or not getting arrested for graffiti or shoplifting. If they’re for nice things like restaurants or banks for how you can be sexier by drinking this particular beverage — the smart, successful, sexy people are white.

I wonder what that’s like.

. . .

I’m a grown-ass woman. A mom. I drive a mini-van, and I learn that Trayvon Martin was killed by a block watch guy. We had an armed block watch guy in the neighborhood where my kids were attacked. He scared me.

Trayvon Martin was walking, unarmed. George Z. killed him. George Z was buff at the time, but he gained over a hundred pounds before the trial. I wonder if that made him look less dangerous to the jury.

GZ is found innocent and I’m crying. I’m thinking of Trayvon’s parents, and how I felt when my kids were hurt. I’m crying and I put my hoodie up and go into a convenience store. I feel what it’s like to be of no concern at all to the owner. I have my hands in my pockets, hood up, and I’m not looking at anybody, and nobody cares at all. I’m not scary. I’m not a brown kid. I’m not going to be shot.

Protests happen, things calm down. Kids are still being shot.

. . .

I’m a grown-ass woman. Mike Brown is killed in Ferguson, Missouri. People are outraged.

And I just keep hoping that this time, the outrage changes something.

“When I was seventeen, I stole cigarettes. A carton every week. Discovered 3 or 4 times & was yelled at. Never saw police, never shot.” – @eraserhd


2 thoughts on “being white in america

  1. Angela;

    Thanks for writing this. My experience growing up was so similar. From the time I was 2 until I was 6, we were in the Ozarks of southern Missouri, and the N word didn’t seem to mean anything to most people who used it. At the time, I didn’t realize much about racism.

    When I was 6, we moved back to southern California, into an integrated (white and hispanic) neighborhood. The N word stopped being an issue — all the people of color in my neighborhood had different nicknames. But whether Mexican or black, clearly those were the wrong credentials for going anywhere. Yet we were surprised when gangs took off and took over the streets.

    It’s finally changing here, but there are still a lot of old, bitter, white people who don’t like the change. They feel that it’s the #*(& immigrants ruining our country and taking our social security away. So sad.

    I echo your hopes that the change will go on, that one day people with different shades of skin will be viewed like people with different colors of hair. It’s not who you are; instead it’s just what you look like.

    Thanks again.

  2. I admire your courage in speaking out. Sometimes when I tweet about race issues, people “of color” tell me I can’t possibly know what I’m talking about. But we all do have our own experiences and perspectives.

    I grew up in Houston during the 60s. The business community there quietly integrated everything to avoid violence and keep business good. Everything was just glossed over. I was quite sheltered. I went to Catholic school where we had quite a diversity and had friends of all colors and ethnic backgrounds. I’m sure my friends experienced a lot of discrimination and abuse that they just didn’t talk about – nobody talked about it.

    We had a maid, Hattie, (who is still a dear family friend along with her sister and brother-in-law), and when I was 3 and 4 she used to bring her niece to play with me. I remember asking her why she was called ‘colored’, as brown didn’t seem like much of a color. And once I called Hattie the N word, of course I didn’t know what I was saying but my mom had to talk Hattie out of quitting on the spot. Hattie went on to get her college degree and taught first grade well into her 80s.

    So I had a protected world to live in, while still seeing all the riots and violence on TV. MLK was a hero to me. I read Malcolm X and lots of history and thought I was quite a good, unprejudiced person. But, I think my critics may be right, that I don’t know much about what other people experience.

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