I don’t expect this to be profound, or very interesting, or much use for anyone except, hopefully, me, as it’s my personal narrative.
It is, perhaps, an exercise in vanity, but I don’t know how else to verbalize, move on and grow than by simply… verbalizing, moving on, and growing.
And there are many others who are vaguely but undeniably uncomfortable with the topic, but don’t want to venture to voice their thoughts because so much about it it is inherently personal yet taboo. I think choosing silence does society and progress a disservice.
Such silence is currently holding back conversation and collective self-examination in San Diego where only a few who write and talk about current affairs are willing to discuss race implications of the special mayoral election.
So here goes.
I’m a white girl from Northern Maine. I take that as a good thing, partly because I loved growing up in the trees, partly because (of course) I love my family, but also because not being white would have posed additional childhood challenges. I recognize there are many privileges of my childhood, including this.
Although I was teased a fair amount, I was never exposed to hateful racial slurs. I did hear ignorant boys use these slurs against a couple friends over the years, which baffled and angered me. There were only four black people I knew in my town: two friends who had been adopted by one of my favorite families, and one schoolmate and his Mom who had left war-torn Liberia. He had brothers, too, but they were older and didn’t know them. Other than these, the extent of my awareness of diversity included a Portuguese grandmother, mother, and her two kids who were just a little older than me. The Liberian mom and Portuguese grandmother attended my church and I spent time outside church with them sometimes. In my circles, that was it. It was woefully inadequate, but typical of rural Maine at the time.
As an avid reader and through school, I remember learning about World War II and Hitler’s atrocities. It made me worried and ashamed about being half German. My German ancestors had fled Germany in the 1800’s to Russia due to religious persecution, then Russia to the United States for the same reason. They mostly settled in South Dakota and farmed.
Although I knew my direct lineage had nothing to do with historically recent genocide, I began to think that portion of my whiteness was a problem. I tried to more closely identify with my much smaller percentage of Penobscot Native American, read books about moving quietly through the woods and living harmoniously with nature, and daydreamed about what it would have been like to live 200 years earlier in an actual tribe. It seemed much nobler an existence. I began to think of those with more darkly pigmented skin as inherently better than myself: more interesting, richer in heritage, living lives of greater depth and meaning.
I never spoke these things aloud. Why would I unintentionally insult my family and white friends? And what good would it do? I wouldn’t choose a different family for myself even if I could.
In fifth grade, my best friend, older cousin and I went with my Mom and Aunt to visit my grandfather, where he was living, teaching and gardening at a Baptist school for hearing impaired children in Baja California, Mexico. The students live at the school during the school year, and have strict schedules. We sat in on classes, quickly learned some conversational sign language, ate most of our meals with our new friends, played basketball and ran around during the recreation time, helped with Saturday morning chores, and attended church with them.
It was vacation for us, though, so we also got to leave with my Mom and Aunt to go to the beach, have a few meals in Ensenada, and shop. It was embarrassing to be reminded that our lives were dramatically different from those of the kids at the school when we got to do those things.
Over the days, we each developed a crush on boys there. At that age it meant catching an eye and blushing, playing chase on the playground, or trying to maneuver to sit near them during movie night. One star-filled evening before the boys were called to their dorm by the flashing lights, we girls and our three favorite boys found ourselves outside together. We shared a few prized moments of shy interactions: dreamy and magical and full of perfect pre-teen bittersweetness. We knew we would leave Mexico for the snowbanks of Maine soon. We would leave, and they would stay.
In the years that followed, I went back to Mexico a couple more times with Mom. My friends there teased that I had grown so much taller because in America, I got to drink real milk instead of the powdered stuff they had. I learned the sign for ‘giraffe’ as they good-naturedly teased me. It was my first real, in-my-face exposure to privilege. I rounded my shoulders forward a little to try to be less tall as my face burned hotly. They were so matter-of-fact about it, harboring no ill will, but I didn’t want there to be such stark differences between us.
Much later as a young college student, I met and grew to love a Hawaiian classmate. Through him, I learned of the oppression and takeover of those islands, and he shared story after story of everyday racism he encountered in school. He told me at the time he’d rather be speaking English than Japanese (as they would likely have conquered Hawaii if Europeans had not), but the history in his grandparents’ memories of making Hawaiian illegal to speak and modern barriers to land ownership, mockery of pidgin, and ongoing income inequality were very much in his awareness and identity.
When my part-Hawaiian daughters were small, I was worried that I didn’t have a kaleidoscope of friends. For some time I considered taking them and integrating into a predominantly black church, hoping that shared Christian faith and exposure to worship in other than a maddeningly, predominantly white congregation would be better for all of us. I grew tired of Southern California churches filled with mostly white, wide-eyed, enthusiastic 20-something couples, or mostly greying, white folks, where I didn’t quite fit in as a single parent. I dreamt of worship with families and individuals of all ages and colors. Homogeny seemed an indicator of a Christianity where something significant is missing, but seeking out a new church solely on grounds of race seemed disingenuous, too, so I never did it.
In my twenties I dated a wonderful and talented English man of Jamaican heritage for a couple years. At the time I imagined a future with him, perhaps even with another child or two. When I visited England on a business trip, I stayed the weekend in a hotel near his childhood home. I spent a small amount of time with some of his family, but while they were gracious and fun, I generally came away with the feeling that a white American divorcee with two kids was less-than their ideal partner for him. I didn’t know how to internalize that realization, and felt angry and sad and hopeless. But to respect and love him meant extending the same to his family. While it was never fully articulated at the time, recognition of the inherent challenges of that match contained wisdom.
The years have softened my experiences of odd and uncomfortable generalized guilt, but issues of race, privilege, and inequity swirl around us. We are by no means a post-racial society, though we must hold dearly to our family stories, traditions, and history rather than dilute the beauty of our diversity. There is much to work to be done to dismantle quietly persistent prejudices, income and opportunity inequality, poorly integrated entertainment, environmental injustice, and racially unequal law enforcement. We have a lot of ground to cover in the world of thoughts and policy, and avoiding the topic isn’t helping us progress.
In most of our cities and towns, in order to meet new people of any color we have to proactively seek them out. People are too busy, too shy, too stuck in routine to pursue new interests and meet new friends. The best some can muster is attending a celebratory international festival, but those are about going to taste and see, not engage. Cultural foods offer the lowest barriers and least commitment, and offer a culinary substitute for self-examination and the actions it demands.
Much has been recently written about celebrating others’ cultural cuisines – how it’s diluting those cultures when the cuisine takes off as a wildfire (mostly middle-to-upper class white people) foodie craze. While that’s true and caution is required, it also can be an on-ramp to awareness. Can be. I think sometimes we substitute impersonal food adventures for new interactions because it’s simply easier, but commodification can have a number of unintended consequences.
I don’t have any perfect solutions. As an adult, my social and environmental activism, engagement with current events and the world around me has led to an ever-increasing circle of contacts. As such, friendships gravitate around shared passions and interests. Social media in its ideal form helps bring people together. Life finally feels a little more like what “normal” should be.
I am pleased to see my daughters’ circles include friends from many different backgrounds. Many signs point to vast improvement with their generation, but there is still great disparity in school budgets – especially for families of color in poverty areas – which will reduce mobility and economic stability for those children as adults and perpetuate inequality.
I don’t think things will get better by putting on blinders of ignorance, or by minimizing the experiences of ourselves nor others. My being white doesn’t diminish the lives of others, but pretending it doesn’t matter would be ignorant. Pretending there are no differences is beyond insulting. Sticking to what we know is a flimsy excuse. Electing a black President – twice – is a sign post of progress but also has exposed how deeply and harmfully prejudices are still held by some in our country. Elevating the experiences of one person or race over another is unhelpful, but I’ll continue to seek out the voices of people of color because frankly, white voices have dominated the conversation for far too long. Watering down modern evidence of racism and inequality or wishing it away won’t fix the problem, but paying attention to our own thoughts and attitudes, then attuning our ears and seeking out the voices of others is a good start.
My thoughts and personal history shared here are not enough. I’m mostly sharing it for others who, like me, don’t really know what to do with their awareness and dis-ease around issues of race. I’m sharing it now, because race is a hot-potato subject in San Diego’s current special election for mayor, as are deceitful power-grabbing tactics by the primarily white, wealthy interests opposing mayoral hopeful David Alvarez. Silence on these issues quietly endorses the dirty race tactics by some of these political players. I’m sharing it in honor of Dr. King’s legacy. And I’m sharing it now to urge you to seek out voices like those of Jessie-Lane Metz, Mikki Kendall, and Flavia Dzodan.
I’m not willing to not work on this stuff just because it’s hard. I’m ready do a lot of listening, and not just on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Thanks for reading. Feel free to share your thoughts here, write out a similar personal narrative exercise, or just… join me in listening, and speak out against injustice when compelled.