This morning I read Slate’s story on The Whiteness Project and I was reminded of the times I’ve been asked by black people how I got so comfortable around black people. First, I have to give major credit to those who asked, because that’s not an easy question to ask for lots of reasons. And, I’m sure it’s been on the minds of many people who didn’t ask. So here’s the thing – I wasn’t always comfortable around black people. I grew up in a 1970s suburban development in Oklahoma City, one that my mother and stepfather specifically moved to for the schools. One might even call it a white flight development. I went to an all white grade school, and an all white middle and junior high And, I went to high school with 400 other white people. If I’m remembering this incorrectly, I’m sure someone will tell me about it. Maybe there was one brown kid in there somewhere? But if so, I really don’t remember that.
In college, I still didn’t know one darn non-white person until I was matched up with a young black woman via lottery in the dorms my sophomore year. We rarely talked, and I assumed it was because I was older, and she had a full social life, but looking back, she may have just had her “you’re a white person” walls up, boundaries I didn’t realize existed until I was much older.
In grad school I met some black people who played in bands, because I worked at a restaurant/bar on campus corner, and we had fabulous live music. That was peripheral at best. So, I was on a campus of fifteen or twenty thousand people, and still didn’t know any black people, as terrifying as that is in retrospect.
I finished grad school and went to work in Oklahoma City for a state agency, and worked with a few minorities, none of whom I knew beyond small talk.
In my 20s and 30s I worked around a few black people, but again only peripherally. I never knew any of them beyond very small talk at work. Then, I met a young black woman at work, and we became friends. I knew what was happening in her life, and she knew what was happening in mine. We didn’t socialize, though. And, later I realized she had the “you’re a white person” walls up, too. I mean that in a loving and straightforward way – not as a criticism.
So, long about 35 I started to think I likely needed to become a parent, for many reasons that I’ve already discussed in other blog posts, and voila the universe gave me three beautiful, brown children. I don’t recommend acquiring brown children as a way to become comfortable around non-whites - it’s sort of the Evil Knievel method of getting there. But, it’s what worked for me, and I think it’s a lesson for others.
Had you asked me before I became a parent if I was comfortable around black people, I would have answered “yes,” and that would have been a lie. I didn’t know it was a lie at the time, but it was. When the social service agency in my state called to say they didn’t often have healthy, white babies in the foster care system, I told them I only wanted kids 4-years-old and up, and I didn’t care what color they were. And, I didn’t care. But I had no idea what a paradigm shift I was in for, because I had no idea what the world of black people was really like.
So, here’s what I’ve learned, and what the article referenced above spells out – when you surround yourself with people who look like you, think like you, and earn the same income as you, whether you intend to or not, you have created a scary little insular world where it’s easy to judge and condemn anyone outside your circle, because you don’t regard them as people. They are “other,” so how can you have empathy for them? Not pity, but empathy? How can you walk in someone else’s shoes, if you don’t even know what shoes they’re wearing?
When I fostered and then adopted my kids, it was like I learned the secret handshake for a world to which I had not been privy my whole life. What I’m about to describe below is the rule, not the exception. Some of you I’m sure have wildly diverse social networks, but as the “75% of white people don’t include black people in their social networks” statement in the above-referenced article illustrates, you’re the exception not the rule. If you’re reading this and thinking “yeah, but I’m not racist” stop doing that. I’m not saying you’re a racist. I’m saying you don’t know black people. So, here’s what I’ve learned:
- My kids get treated differently than white kids at school, until I go to the school and show the administrators/teachers they have a white mom, and then it stops. Does every school and every teacher/administrator do this? No. Do enough do it that I’m forced to admit it’s a thing? Yes. And, yes I do use my white privilege on behalf of my children and will continue to do so. This makes me sad in so many darn ways.
- Other black kids tell my kids they smell “musty” and have “nappy” hair, one of the many ways in which black children learn to belittle other black children. These are words I didn’t even know outside of Alice Walker novels until I became a parent. And, I didn’t realize black people were awful to each other, as completely naive as that sounds, until I became a parent of black children. I assumed white kids would say awful things to my kids about their brown skin and “nappy” hair – I didn’t expect it from other black children. I was absurdly wrong.
- Black hair – don’t even get me started on the culture of black hair. My kids are beautiful. They have beautiful, natural black hair. And, I can’t tell you how many women have walked up to us to tell me, in front of them, how horrible their hair looks, because it’s natural. Thank God we also have wonderful women, with their own natural hair, walk up and say the opposite, too. I actually created cards to hand out to people who have complaints, because my oldest daughter started getting in their face about it, and I was afraid she was going to get punched. In my wildest pre-adoption dreams, I never thought I and my children would be waging a self-esteem war about hair. If you haven’t seen Chris Rock’s Good Hair, please watch it.
- Salespeople treat me differently when I’m with my kids than when I’m not. When I’m not with my kids, I get the full “uptight, white lady” treatment, which means I get waited on immediately with a big smile. When I’m with my kids we stand around for a while and might have to finally ask someone for help. I first experienced this when I was buying furniture for my children’s rooms in a store that is notorious for very aggressive salespeople. I walked in with my kids and stood there while no less than 7 salesmen stared at the floor and each other. Finally a woman, who later explained that she was Iranian, walked up and very graciously helped us. I knew exactly what I wanted, so she earned her commission on $1,500 in less than 10 minutes, which I hope she explained to her co-workers.
- White people are judgmental and rude. I can’t tell you how many big-haired, Baptist women have looked disapprovingly at me in the grocery line when they see me with my kids. Or at the park, or the movies, or the festivals or wherever. And, no I don’t actually know that they’re Baptist – there’s just a type of woman in the Bible Belt that I can’t describe any other way. Or there’s the group of white women dining next to us in Chicago who gave us more disapproving looks than we’ve ever had in Oklahoma. I wanted to say “yes, my beautiful brown children ARE dining on lobster this evening, and they know how to use their utensils properly and how to eat in a grown-up restaurant, so I invite you to suck it,” but I smiled nicely instead, as did my seething 15-year-old. And, by the way I always smile politely, directly at the judgers, so they can see that I and my family know how to treat people, and we will not be shamed.
- Black people do not talk to white people like they talk to their black friends. You may think they do, but they don’t. They really, really don’t. People I thought I knew decently well spoke to me in a whole new way after I adopted the kids. It’s like they let walls down, although I’m sure not completely, and it was at that point I realized my black friends had had filters the whole time they’d known me. I can’t imagine what it’s like to walk around the world filtering yourself at work, school, socially, with your neighbors, because I’ve never had to do that, because I’m white. No wonder black people have their own churches. Can you imagine worshiping with a filter? This realization, too, made me very sad.
And, finally, I treat black people differently than I did before I adopted. I know that, because I’ve had several people ask me “Shelley, how’d you get so comfortable around black people?” That tells me I’ve had a shift that wasn’t purposeful or conscious – it just happened. I thought I was treating everyone the same for the last 40 or so years, but I wasn’t. I can’t name what’s different – I think I’m just more authentic, more transparent, I don’t know. Maybe someone reading this can tell me what the difference is. I do know why the difference happened – I got to know some black people. It’s really that simple. I have tremendous empathy for my children, and it’s tough to see someone who looks like them and continue to regard those people as “other.” Young black men walking down the street who might have scared me 10 years ago (yes, I was one of those white women as are a lot of white women), now look like my son will in 10 years, so I smile and say hello. Know what I get back? Nine times out of ten I get a smile back and a a”Hello ma’am, how are you?”
So how can you get to know black people? I don’t know, frankly. I keep threatening to have quarterly parties where I invite people from all the worlds I inhabit and make them talk to each other. Maybe a good start would be to admit that we don’t live in a racially equal or a post-racial society. White people who say “I don’t see color” are just absurdly misguided. Of course you see color. Now, confront your fears, step outside your safe, white world and actually get to know some of the people behind the color. I highly recommend it.