I’m currently enrolled in White People Challenging Racism: Moving from Talk to Action. As an assignment for the course we were asked to write about our race/racism awareness journey. The facilitators encouraged us to write “a timeline or narrative about how your understanding your own racial identity, of racial inequities and of your white privilege, has changed over time.” Here is mine:
Age 3: “Look mommy!”
It was a hot summer and my mom was pregnant. Reportedly I’d been asking lots of questions about the baby, as children do. Girl or boy? When was it coming? What would it look like? Would it be white or black? My parents explained that because they were white, the baby would be white. My mom and I headed to the public pool at the park near our house. “Look mommy!” I shouted while pointing at a mom and her baby, “A white mommy with a black baby!” Evidence, to my three-year-old mind that my parents were wrong. The other mother glared at us from across the pool, my own mother was mortified. This story has become the origin story in family lore of my racial awareness.
Age 7: “Why can’t I sign?”
Each year my hometown hosts a march on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day through downtown followed by a keynote address by a guest speaker on topics relating to Dr. King’s legacy. Each year my parents would bundle up my sister and I and we would head down for the march. This year, as we headed past the convention center to our car after the march, some city sanitation workers were asking for people to sign petitions to increase their benefits. All of the sanitation workers, in my memory, were black. My parents stopped to sign the petition and I asked, “Why can’t I sign?” understanding only that it seemed important and that they were asking us to help. “You’re too young,” my parents responded, “but this is why we march, to help people get what they deserve.”
Age 8: “Why is their pool so small?”
One of my mom’s rules is that my sister and I had to learn how to swim. She signed us up for the Parks & Rec summer league through the city pools. The pool in our neighborhood was really three pools: a lap pool, a kid pool complete with a water slide and a mock pirate ship, and a diving pool with three boards. It felt palatial. As part of the league we competed at the other city pools. Most looked like a variation on ours, with several pools including spacious lap pools where the competitions were held. Halfway through the summer we went to Cardinal Valley to compete in their pool. “Why is their pool so small?” I asked my mom as we got out of the car and stepped towards the lap pool with three lanes seemingly not much longer than a bathtub. The tallest boy on our team barely took a single stroke before reaching the other side. Cardinal Valley is the poor, increasingly Latino side of town. Our team never went back to compete there again; the pool was closed the following year. There was no question in my mind that my team won the meet because of our superior pool, a win that tasted cruel and unfair.
Age 11: “No tolerance policy”
Starting in 6th grade I was bused across town to the north end for school, to neighborhoods that were impoverished and schools that were half black, half white. In the spring of that year I was asked to talk to the 5th graders at my old elementary school who were on the cusp of choosing whether to attend my middle school on the other side of town. I got a lot of questions, mostly about normal middle school fears surrounding making friends and opening lockers and getting to class on time. But I also got a lot of questions about safety. The school had a reputation for being unsafe, a place where kids got in a lot of fights. “There is a no tolerance policy,” I assured the 5th graders, “if kids fight they get in trouble.” This was my attempt to assuage their fears. But what I realized a few weeks later was that this term was a real policy that some schools used to kick kids out at the first infraction and that what those 5th grade students, and their parents particularly, were really afraid of were the black students I walked through the hallways with. This prejudice against my school and its students would remain a constant presence until I graduated high school.
Age 14: “Peanut-butter colored?”
Once I got to high school, my classmates and I were in the full throws of identity formation. One of my classmates was a boisterous boy who often got into debates. One day a black girl in my class started getting frustrated at him and as I started to pay attention to what they were saying I heard her ask, “Peanut-butter colored? That’s what you are?” This boy was half Iranian and had been insisting that he was also subject to discrimination. It had never occurred to me that he had experienced discrimination; he had always appeared to be so privileged with his huge house and his fancy shoes, his status as a boy in a patriarchal world. This moment revealed to me the challenges of building coalitions and humbled me – I realized that I was not fully aware of the ways people could be racist, as I’m sure they were to this peanut-butter colored boy at their country clubs and in their gated communities.
Age 18: “My boyfriend is mixed”
By January of my freshman year of college I’d fallen in love. The boy whose smile made me feel warm inside is super smart, both sarcastic and sweet. We lived in the same dorm and had met within the first few days of school. His mom is a white Canadian and his dad is a black Brazilian. His last name sounds Brazilian, he looks “mixed” with big soft curls in his hair and skin more milk than chocolate. People would ask him where he was from (Portland), what sport he played (none). He recounted stories of microaggressions and overt racism, harbored doubts about his qualifications for admission to our university (despite outscoring me on the ACT). To my family, I was clear: “My boyfriend is mixed,” I’d tell them, explaining the origin stories of his mom and dad. For most of my relatives, this was a non-issue. But my grandfather never commented, my half-uncle I never told.
Age 19: “Why are you white?”
I spent the summer after my sophomore year working at a summer program for 4-8 year olds based out of a far-flung housing project in New Haven, CT. The projects were low, grim buildings surrounded by nothing. The school where we held the program felt like an outpost among the trees that surrounded the projects; there were no stores, no restaurants, no fire department, no library, no doctors, within walking distance. One day I was sitting on the floor with some of the four year olds when one of the girls looked up at me, brushed aside her beaded braids and asked, “Why are you white?” The memory of the story of my own version of this question came back to me. I answered along the same lines, “Well you know how your mom is black, so you’re black? Well my parents are white, so I’m white.” But I knew, looking into her eyes that it was so much more complicated than that. That when my Italian relatives arrived they were not white, that skin color is one of many inherited traits and that the genetics can lead to seemingly unpredictable phenotypes within families and extremely diverse genotypes within so-called “races.” On the long bus ride home that evening I realized I should have asked her what she thought and why she was asking. I can imagine that if the housing project had been her home for her four years of life I could have very easily been the first white person she was close enough to, to ask a question like that.
Age 20: “Ethnicity, Race and Migration”
By the time I started my junior year I was supposed to have been settled on a major. I had fallen into Political Science. But I had also enrolled in the introductory ethnic studies course the semester before and was thinking about taking the junior seminar. I loved the intro course; it was taught by one of my favorite professors and it gave me the vocabulary for things I’d been witnessing and wondering about for years. Why the hallways of my high school were half black and half white but my AP classes weren’t at all that integrated, why my neighborhood was white, what my white privilege was enabling me to do, these questions finally took shape explicitly. So I signed up for the class and asked my major I answered, “Political Science and Ethnicity, Race, and Migration,” and I would sit back to see the reaction. Not long after, I read Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work on intersectionality, Native scholars, theorists on whiteness, The New Jim Crow, and historiographies of race – the Ivory Tower revealed to me a heretofore unknown realm of scholars confronting reality and its ugly racism.
Age 22: “Cape Verdean?”
I moved to Boston to teach 8th graders and was placed at a school on the edge of Roxbury. As I learned about the school I was told that many students are Latino, mostly from the Dominican Republic and Central American and that many students are Cape Verdean. “Cape Verdean?” I asked, confused. Cape Verde is an island chain off the coast of West Africa, colonized by the Portuguese who brought African slaves from the mainland. People speak Cape Verdean Kriolu and are taught Portuguese in school to this day. Boston has one of the largest populations of Cape Verdeans and they have been immigrating almost continuously for several generations. From here, fact and fiction blurred. I was told that many students who look black don’t identify as black, that some Cape Verdeans have red hair because a red-haired monk came to the islands and fathered many children, that their language was only written by the Boston Public Schools and not by any actual Cape Verdeans, that they all lived in the same neighborhood. What I found upon meeting the actual students themselves is that, like recently arriving students from around the world, Cape Verdean recent arrivals were often mystified by the racial system of the U.S. This is not to say that Cape Verde is a racism-free haven, far from it. But that because race is constructed and racist systems are based on arbitrary rules for the maintenance and reproduction of power, this takes slightly different shapes in different places. My students who have been in the U.S. for a while, however, harbor no illusions about how race and racism work in America. From my students I learned many lessons about race and struggled with what it meant to be a white teacher in front of almost exclusively students of color.
Age 23: “My boyfriend is black.”
By January of my first year in Boston I’d fallen in love. The man with whom I can fully exhale is super smart, funny, and caring. We met swing dancing, an activity we still enjoy almost weekly. He is black, and his name “sounds” black and his grandmother is Cape Verdean. His mom’s work centers on diversity and inclusion trainings so he grew up hearing the academic side of race and racism that I learned about in college. When we started dating, I was working very closely with the guidance counselor at the school where I taught. Her husband is black, and his name “sounds” black too. I realized, however, that she used this as a card or a tool. She would tread the line of acceptable humor and fall back on her husband’s race as a means of legitimizing her perspective. A few of my fellow teachers and I were discussing this one day (two of us were white, two were people of color). Finally I said, “You know, my boyfriend is black but I don’t use that as an excuse or claim it as a trophy.” Affirmations murmured around the table and the conversation moved forward. But I wondered if that is what I was doing in that moment. My ally-ship, like her statements, cannot rest on the laurels of my romantic partner. What did I do to actually confront her?
Age 24: “You can’t use that word.”
I now work at a different school, no longer teaching but instead coaching teachers and providing behavior support. We have an 8th grader, one of the few white students at our school, who recently said incendiary things during history class. Racist bile spewed from his young mouth. I was not in the room, only heard about it later through the grown-up grape-vine. That afternoon and roughly once a week since then he runs out of class when he gets frustrated, often coming to talk to me. I try to lead with inquiry, but the other day the first thing out of my mouth was, “You can’t use that word.” I tried to explain that despite the hard lot he’s been dealt in life, the historical significance of that word made his using it unacceptable, tried to explain that he has privileges because he is white even if it doesn’t feel that way right now. I tried to refocus myself on something tangible I knew he would understand, so we started with working on basic self-control: when you start to feel frustrated and angry, how should you react? But I wonder, will coaching him to take deep breaths solve the underlying problem? And, since there has been no effort by the school to address the black and brown children he harmed, what can I do to help mitigate their pain? What does it look like to challenge racism from a 13 year old within a system rife with institutional racism?