Confessions Of A White Girl: Part I
“Bus driver, bus driver, king of the Jews.
Walking in the jungle in tennis shoes.
Looked up a tree. What did I see?
A God-damn nigger going pee on me!”
My cousins taught me this song when I was in third grade. At the playground I decided to share it with my friend Dee Dee. I stopped right before I got to the word “nigger”. Dee Dee was black. I was not. I told her I forgot the rest.
I remember learning about slavery in seventh grade. It was 1977 and the history teacher referred to it as “an economic institution”. I had a pit in my stomach. I looked over at Tamika. She was black. I felt bad. My ancestors were not slaves.
In eighth grade I invited Tamika to my house. I don’t remember what we played, did, or said. I felt so good about myself for having a black friend. I don’t think she stayed for dinner. I know I did not invite her back.
The first time I realized I was white was when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger, Africa. It was 1989 and I was twenty-four years old. I was the perfect candidate. I had a degree in English. I came from a large, Catholic, second-generation Italian and Polish family. All my letters of reference stated I was “color-blind.”
Training was in country for three months. I was taught basic French. My first lesson “Je suis Americain” was followed by “Je suis corps de la paix”. We sat under huts in small groups for our cultural lessons. This is what I remember: “Dark skinned Tuareg tribe members were slaves to light-skinned Tuareg members”; “Women are second class citizens”; and “It is okay for American women to wear shorts.” I also remember being taken to the capital: to the U.S. Ambassador’s pool to swim, to the French grocery store to buy apples and chocolates, and to the Grand Marche to buy West African woven fabric and printed cloth.
I was a physical education teacher in the only all-girls Ecole Normal. It was in the village of Tillaberi. (It did not matter to Peace Corps that the girls did not play sports, or run, or jump.) I worked for the Ministry of Youth and Culture. I lived “at the local level”; Peace Corps volunteers were not given the perks of other aid workers: transportation, room, and board. I lived on the school grounds and pumped my water at the well along with the students.
In Peace Corps I knew I was American. In Peace Corps I knew I was white. I felt the power of my passport and Peace Corps I.D. I felt the power of my real employer—the U.S. government. And most importantly I felt the power of my white skin. Let me give you an example. The president of Niger was Ali Saibou, a military dictator. Ali Saibou was coming to our village and school. It was a big deal. Attendance was mandatory. But not for me. I skipped town. I did not want the president to see my white face in the sea of black faces. I went to visit a fellow volunteer in a neighboring village. I did not get into trouble. “Je suis Americain”.
Confessions Of A White Girl: Part II
As a child I did not think of myself as white. But I knew I was not Black. In 1969 my father moved our family to a small farming community one hour south of Buffalo, New York. Names like Bernhoft, Ahrens, and Ehman spoke of its German heritage. Except I never heard any classmates refer to themselves as German-American. Outside of town, “on the hill”, there was a small African-American Muslim community. My parents were descendants of Polish and Italian immigrants who worked in the Lackawanna steel plants. My parents grew up, worked side-by-side, and were comfortable with just about anybody and everybody. We were expected to be like them.
My grandparents and parents had that WW II sensibility of politics: what is just and unjust. I took pride in their stories. My grandpa Tony taught two Black women how to drive because their husbands would not. My mother’s childhood house was next to a “Black house of ill repute”. Her mother, my grandmother, taught the kids that lived there how to knit. My mother carpooled rides to work and school with Tamika’s mom.
My favorite stories involved my father. He was a New York State Trooper. Once he was called to settle a dispute. A Black neighbor had shot at a white neighbor’s car. The white neighbor asked my father to do something about it. My father asked our Black neighbor why he shot at the white neigbor’s car. Our Black neighbor answered, “Because I told him if he ever drives down this street that fast again while my kids are playing I’m going to shoot his tires out. ” My father looked at the white neighbor and said, “He told you he was going to shoot your tires out if you drove too fast.”
My parents were fair, respectful, and honest. I noticed though that they didn’t have any Black friends. And when O.J. Simpson played for the Buffalo Bills my father yelled at the TV, “run, nigger, run.”
In college my best friend was Black. We bonded because we were both uncool, did not drink, and were a bit chubby from eating too many doughnuts late at night. Our friendship grew after college. When she called me on the phone, my gay roommate (who I now realize was more honest than I) would purposely irritate her and say, “It’s your Black friend who sounds like a white girl.” When she graduated with a Ph.D. I was so happy and proud. I took her out to dinner and got her a designer watch. As a joke, I bought her a vintage ceramic jet-black, Black mammy-face tchotchke. She wrote me a letter to tell me she was hurt by the Black mammy-face. I wrote her back. I told her I didn’t think of her as Black. She wrote me again. I had hurt her. Again.
What was I seeing? What was I not seeing?
Confessions Of A White Girl: Part III
“If you’re white, all right. If you’re brown, get down. If you’re black, get back.”
Seeing and calling out my whiteness has been almost impossible. Not just in the invisibility of it all in the imaginary backpack kind of way. I know the “flesh” covered band-aids are for me. I know that I probably won’t be followed around a store by a security guard. I know that I can see my “race” represented on TV. And, I know that if the police stop my I will be given the benefit of the doubt. I am a feminist. I know all about privilege — male, class, and white.
What the real truth of the matter is that I never saw myself as white except when I was in the presence of non-whiteness. Do white people even exist without a non-white person around? Even now, with all my consciousness raising and activism, the words slip out of my mouth. Black friend. Black professor. Black Dentist. Black. Black. Black.
My grandparents and parents not just progressive or politically correct. They taught me to see, really see, the arrogance and ugliness of white people.
I always knew that as a white person my life would be easier and without a certain kind of pain. With their WWII sensibilities, civil-rights era experiences, actions of common sense and decency, and my mother’s incessant letter writing campaigns, my parents taught me to speak up.
I did speak up. I still do. I have a keen sense of injustice, racism, arrogance, and entitlement thanks to Peace Corps, graduate school, and fifteen years working as a social worker in one of the most segregated cities in the country. You name it; I can see it. I can academic-speak with the best of any professor about power, privilege, oppression theory, racialized policies, the school-to-prison pipeline, post-colonial theory, blah, blah, blah. I even started a dissertation: “White Out: Transcending the Colonizing Eye”, blah, blah, blah.
I have also learned that academic speak means nothing. I didn’t need to read Patricia Williams’ book about how her white colleagues and law students dismissed her because she is Black. A white social work graduate professor told his Black colleague that her braids “bordered on unprofessional”. I say his comments bordered on racism. This is what I heard from my post-graduate professors whose studied race: “I would love to take down Cornell West; bell hooks and Angela Davis sold out. My personal favorite, “I adopted a Black child from South Africa”. I can just hear my father, “You couldn’t find a Black child in the States? I hear they’re cheaper.”
Needless to say, those professors were clearly uncritical of their own shit and superiority. But what about me? And Myself? I was missing something. Looking at my own whiteness is like looking at a negative space. I didn’t see it. I didn’t feel it. I didn’t know it was there. Kind of like putting up a Black Lives Matter sign and then doing nothing about it. I was my mom and my dad. Doing good word. But, instead of yelling I was drooling over nigger-go-home clothes from J.Crew and chatting about nigger-digger fingernails.
Confessions Of A White Girl: Part IV
I have learned that for me, my whiteness is a space — a historical space and a relational space. Whiteness and Blackness is about what happens in the in-between. It is a historical space because when I see, greet, or meet a non-white person, I feel the centuries of history bubbled up between us: slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, genocide, citizenship, favor, advantages, anger and rage, and ease and dis-ease. My visual reference is the character Pig Pen from Peanuts; when describing him Charlie Brown says, “Don’t think of it as dust. Just think of it as the dirt and the dust of far-off lands blowing over here and settling.”
It is relational space because one cannot exist without the other. We name each other white or Black. And, because of the historical, any interaction for me is deeply personal, whether I am conscious of it or not. Therefore, all my interactions are relational.
Most, most, most, importantly, I could not, and can not truly see and even get beyond my whiteness without experiencing the relational in the pig pen of the historical. And, by relational I mean relationships. Relationships as in best friends, breaking bread, talking about lovers and sex, witnessing and sharing pain and grief, making fun, laughing, eating and drinking, talking about God, refusing God, sometimes singing and sometimes dancing, but always, always, always full of honesty and love. And, always, always, always, owning up to racial slights, hurts and outright wounds, most of which fall on my side, the white side.
My best friends are Black. I write this not to validate an arrival to a non-existing post-racial place. I write this to make the point that without these fully and at times brutally honest relationships, both grown and nurtured within that historical space called race-relations, both grown and nurtured from the ordinary dailiness of our lives, I am able to see my white self.
The original sin of being white is the inherent world of ease, benefits, claim, comfort, and mirrored images that come with being white. I cannot dis-own my whiteness. I cannot reject my whiteness. I cannot refuse my whiteness. No one white person can. Saying so is no more effective than an Imagine Peace bumpersticker. As Chandra Mahonty would say, “nothing but a meaningless empty gesture”.
My white sins are sins of omission — my sins of failing to do something I can and ought to do. Inactions are a breach of moral law. When I fail to have relationships with my Black and brown brothers and sisters that are intimate and honest, when I hesitate in gesture or response — pleasant and unpleasant — or when I allow my knee jerk, culturally learned hostitilies and insults to surface and stay, how then can I see and know my whiteness? And, ultimately see what it means for me to be white in America?
Claudia Rankine writes in her book Citizen, her ode for white people about how it feels to be Black in America, “Though you can retire from an injury, you can’t walk away because you feel bad.” I would say, therein lies the difference. This is what it means to be white in America. I can walk away. I see my whiteness. I own my whiteness. I work against my whiteness. But at times I commit the sin of omission. I get tired of witnessing the pain and suffering. I get tired from the energy I expend to fight. I get tired of always examaning my life and my community for evidence of privilege and power. I can walk away. I can turn it off. I can commit the sin of omission. Sometimes, I knowingly do nothing.
The other night I was reading the book Follow The Drinking Gourd to my child. I purchased the book thinking it was an illustrated text to the lyrics. I was wrong. It was the story of the Underground Railroad. When I got to a picture of a slave on an auction block I stopped reading. I hadn’t expected that. It was honest. But how do I explain to my white child about slavery and its enduring legacy; that his Black and brown brothers and sisters will find the world less inviting, less responsive, and less sincere? Something Black and brown children his age have probably already experienced. You can do what I did. You can commit the sin of omission. You close the book and say, “Mama doesn’t like this book. Let’s pick another.