As a blonde, white, green eyed woman, the term “white girl” drives me a little batty. Those lists of basic white girl characteristics or top 10 white people lists get under my skin. I hate being put into a teeny, tiny check box. So, if that little categorization of my “type” hits a nerve, imagine what decades or centuries of unflattering characteristics or generalizations does to your psyche.
I am a little anxious about putting this all out there as likely there are still areas I need to improve my own biases and judgments. But, if we want to have a conversation as a society about racism, let’s put it all out there… What I am about to write about is uncomfortable, provocative and offensive but I am putting it out there to put the light on what goes on behind closed doors when white people think they are amidst like minded folk. Often these people are our family members or extensions of our families, so it makes it next to impossible to drop them like a hot potato when they utter such disgusting remarks or beliefs. They have no concept of white privilege. They will argue with you until they’re blue in the face that they aren’t racist. Yet, they don’t see the very undertone of their beliefs is the very definition of racism. I don’t want my daughter to live in a world where we all just keep our mouths shut when Uncle Fred (not a real person in my family) says some utterly profane racist remark and everyone at the table snickers or remains awkwardly silent. But, what is more unsettling are the comments or beliefs that have the hint of racism but unless you know what you are hearing or looking at, you can’t really define it as racism. When questioned, it can be turned into “oh, you misunderstood me, I am not racist, I have black friends.”
No one wants to believe they are biased or racist, but even I have caught myself approaching a racist moment due to my own unjustified fear or ignorance on a cultural difference. The difference is, I am willing to embrace my faults and improve upon them because at the very core of who I am, I don’t believe anyone is lesser than me or any less deserving of opportunity to live, pursue happiness and relish liberty. I know I cannot be informed on all cultural differences but I want to learn. I love traveling the country and the world to push myself out of my comfort zone, forcing myself to grow as a human and experience all that the world has to offer, regardless of the color of skin. Let me give an example of a moment that my ignorance nearly resulted in an ignorant and potential racist Facebook post. The recent events regarding the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson resulted in many characters and personalities on the news channels. I listen to the news on Sirius XM radio while driving so I don’t see faces or identifying characteristics of the speaker. Sure, I can impose my imagination based on accents, genders, names, etc… but overall, I have no idea what someone looks like as they speak. Michael Brown’s family has a few lawyers. I could assume due to the racial tension of this case that all of the lawyers involved with the family are African American, but what credence or bearing does that have on them being lawyers. Anyway, during interviews and press conferences, a specific lawyer would say “queRstion” instead of the pronunciation “question.” I found that pronunciation was very distracting to me. I was seconds from posting on Facebook, “WHAT in the world is Missouri teaching in school that “querstion” is a word?!??!” Then a little alarm went off in the depths of my mind, you better double check that word. A quick google search revealed, that querstion is indeed a cultural/regional pronunciation. Google also suggested links that had inquiries, of what I can only assume as white people, asking yahoo groups “why do black people say “aks” or “querstion?” If there is one thing I have learned from traveling, it’s that if someone doesn’t speak the same language as you, whether that be quite literally a completely different language, or a differing dialect of the same language you speak, it does NOT equate to them being stupid or lesser as a human being. Hell, this particular example I am giving is a lawyer saying the word. He obviously is a successful lawyer at that and let’s be honest here, I dropped out of law school, so who the hell am I to judge his pronunciation?!?! If we want to get technical, many white people who live in the SAME region that querstion is a pronunciation for question, say waRSHing machines. My point is, my lack of cultural knowledge led to a judgmental belief about the person saying a word. A word… triggered that.
There are camps of white people who say things like “well I am sick of having to be politically correct” or “why should I have to be so careful with my words??” Because, OUR white ancestors enslaved and exploited a race, or really, let’s be honest, MULTIPLE races. (Native Americans, Chinese, African Americans, etc…). The beliefs that provoked The Civil War are still embedded throughout the country. Just because Mr. White American and his family moved from Anytown, Midwest America to the Southwest in the 50s or 60s, doesn’t make the beliefs he grew up with and subsequently passed onto his offspring, any less offensive. Sure, there are white people who are informed and acknowledge white privilege, but the vast majority of white America needs to take a deep, hard look in the mirror. So here goes a long list of moments that I recall growing up in either Missouri or Southern California. Even in college and my adulthood there have been incidents I have witnessed that if had they seen the light of day, would prove to be visceral fears of races and cultures. This post is to put it out there as a white child, the moments where a conversation with me explaining racism and cultural differences could have guided me down different paths. I am someone, who by nature questions everything, so I was eventually able to make up my own mind, but how many white children are raised in racist environments or maybe are unaware of how others’ treatment of different races/cultures is disgusting and unacceptable so these white children then grow up to exude the same attitudes and beliefs as those before them.
My earliest memory of racial conversations was when I expressed a crush on Eddie Murphy as a six year old, I was told that if I ever married and had a child with a black man, our children would be ridiculed and experience a difficult life, called names like “oreo” and “mulatto.” Granted, at the time I was living in Missouri, so perhaps there is/was truth to that concern for future offspring, and knowing who it came from, I don’t believe that person has ill will toward any races, but it set the stage for future racial conversations and responses. I immediately had concern as a child over who I found myself attracted to or interested in as I grew older. I don’t remember much over the next few years as it relates to race, with the exception of two memories.
During this time, I had moved back and forth from California and Missouri, where racial makeup was markedly different. In Southern California, I was often close to a minority in my school, my friends typically were White, Asian or Hispanic. But, when I was in Missouri, it never failed that I was almost completely entombed with white friends. In Elsberry, MO, we were a very poor family, living in a house that would be condemned and torn down shortly after we moved away. The town was a typical small town in America, everyone knew everyone and there was an “other side of the tracks” neighborhood. I didn’t really know what that meant until I became friends with a black girl in my class. She was a sweet girl who made me laugh and welcomed me, making me feel less like an outsider, since we were relatively new to the town and living in the ubiquitous Humpty Dumpty House. (Don’t ask… ) I would walk home with her some days and then walk to my house. She was the ONLY black girl in our class (the 2010 Census shows 2.4% as African American in Elsberry). I soon found out she was teased and called horrible names. One day, when we were walking to her home, someone yelled out at me, asking why I was walking with “that *******” (you know the word). I hadn’t really heard that word previously and the look on her face when it happened still is unsettling to me. I wish I could remember what I said to her or if I did say anything… the only thing I can remember after that is trying to be overly nice to her so she somehow subconsciously knew I wasn’t like those other people. In my little kid mentality, I wanted to convey to her that I didn’t care that she was a different color, but instead I did treat her differently than other people. Sure, it wasn’t a negative difference per se, but I wasn’t treating her like I would my white friends. I don’t remember anything else but that blurb. I wish I did. I don’t even know if I was an asshole to her after that and stopped hanging out or if I said goodbye when we were going to move away… hell for all I know, she remembers (if she remembers me at all) this story completely differently.
Fast forward to Junior High… I had a crush on Mr. Seventh grade Iranian. God, I thought he was the dreamiest of dreamies. I was in seventh grade puppy love like nobody’s business. I scribbled his name on my folders and prayed he would get paired up with me in class. A family member caught wind of this and scolded me for liking a sand******. They insisted and ranted that I would be disrespected and beaten should I ever marry someone like this man. (As I write this I have to wonder, how were all of the childhood crushes always equating to marriage?? Don’t these adults know how childhood crushes work!??! But I digress…) As a seventh grader, I didn’t understand the Middle East, and really had no concept of where my lovebug was from or what cultural differences we might have. All I cared about were those dreamy eyes of his. But, after multiple scoldings and being told my crush was unacceptable, I tried to give up my interest. I suppose the summer helped give some distance and who knows, maybe I saw another dreamy Mcdreamerson, but I distinctly remember this crush and feeling so confused about my attraction to him once it was deemed dirty and unacceptable by multiple family members. (I googled my dreamy lovebug, and he’s very successful these days, at least according to his Linkedin page ;P) These family members STILL say awful things about various cultures and races. This is Uncle Fred level awfulness.
I remained in Southern California from seventh grade on, but would go back to Missouri for visits to see family. I don’t distinctly remember any one event or moment, but I know I’ve heard some awful words about African Americans, insinuations that if I ever brought a “black man” to visit with me, various family members would disown me. When I had a Korean BFF around the same time I loved Mr. Iranian lovebug, I was quizzed on how smelly their house was when I would come home after spending the night. In reality, her family taught me a few Korean words, fed me amazing food and treated me with complete respect. I dated a couple of Asian guys in High School and early college, at least one elderly person in my family professed “if you two have babies, you will have to put toothpicks in their eyes to keep them open.” A couple of elderly people eventually changed their tune of “colored” and “oriental” after much ado. But this leads to my last childhood moment that I will list, and it doesn’t reflect well on me whatsoever. It came out of fear and ignorance, and all I can say is I am very thankful I have grown as a person to not feel this way anymore.
In the early to mid 1990s, in north Orange County, California, Buddhist temples were sprouting up. Whether they were transforming homes in various neighborhoods or erecting large compounds juxtaposed to the strip malls strewn all over the area, it seemed like the area was being flooded by temples. I heard at home, lots of awful rhetoric about “those Orientals.” It was hard to compartmentalize what I heard at home since one of my two BFFs in high school was Vietnamese. Her family welcomed me with open arms and to this day are lovely, amazing people to me. But somehow they were different Vietnamese because they had “assimilated to American culture.” Whatever the hell that means… I recall driving down a busy street, with my Vietnamese friend in the car, and I flipped off one of the new temples. She immediately questioned me, “WTF are you doing?!?! Why do you care??? Do you understand the meaning of that temple??? How is it different from a church???” Initially, I rebuffed her questions with silence, but what Ms. Vietnamese BFF didn’t know is that she was the catalyst that led to me questioning it all. By “it all” I mean, all of this build up of underlying prejudices and ignorance.
Sure, I am quick to correct or call out someone who uses a term like “oriental” or God, forbid other horrific racial inferences, but often I sit silently with my stomach in knots as I read or hear words of acquaintances, friends, and family saying things like “those people” or the use of “they” when referring to a race, creating an us v. them thought process. When I asked a white tween why she doesn’t like Obama, and she responded “because he’s bla…” and I just looked at her in disbelief instead of quizzing the parents why their child has a blanket hatred for our President because of his color. Within our white communities, we have to shed light on these moments, we have to face the vanilla frosted inferences for what they are… racism and bias. Often born out of fear and ignorance. It’s not scary to me to put blatant racists on notice, but it’s the types like Mrs. Old White Lady Who Bakes Cookies Every Holiday who means well but clutches her purse when a black man approaches, that I find myself struggling to find the courage to point out her fear and ignorance. It’s the subtleties of our bosses and customers, that make for cringe worthy moments, but the fear of saying the wrong thing often outweighs calling it out. It’s the Facebook posts and comments that highlight the very fabric of racism, but yet when I argue the very need to rethink said position is then debated over and over again with no room for growth or open-mindedness. It’s my amazingly intelligent female African American neighbor (she’s a rocket engineer!) who was tormented by the white neighbor across from her. The one time the police came to Ms. Amazing’s house was because she had left to go to the airport and her alarm went off, the police and the alarm company ensured her home was safe before allowing her back into the home, but how did the other neighbor perceive it… Ms. Amazing neighbor was arrested for bad conduct and is a horrible person. (The person actually wrote a letter to our HOA board to attempt to persuade the board to reconsider when they found out Ms. Amazing was newly appointed to our HOA).
As I wrap up this post, it is scary to put this all out there. I kept many components as vague as possible to protect various family members, but maybe that in and of itself is part of the problem, I don’t know. What I do know, is that if we want our children to grow up in a better society, we have to start somewhere, so here is my attempt at starting a conversation.