I have an on-again-off-again relationship with white people. I've always been that way.
I grew up in a college town in Kansas in a house on the side of the tracks where I was often the only brown person in my grade at elementary school. If there was one other melanin-blessed kid, it was nothing short of a miracle. It didn't really bother me, but the questions or dumb comments got annoying. Why couldn't I get my hair wet? Do I tan? Can I teach them to dance?
It's exhausting to feel like the spokeswoman for your race. Sometimes I have the energy to do it, other times I don't want to be bothered. Many times I think: Why? Why do I have to answer this? Why don't you already know? I know all about you. I grew up reading Seventeen and YM, so I know all about your hair, your skin, your beauty products.
Each year, for nine months I went to school, we learned about you for eight months, me for one. I know about your forefathers and the history we share, you should know more about mine.
Then in college all kinds of racial barriers were tested, lessons were taught and learned. Now I'm a mom of two, married to a Norwegian (yes, the blue-eyed, blond-haired sort) and we've got a happy little home in Chicago's suburbs. Life is good, though I have to say I sometimes feel like a speck of pepper in a suburban sugar bowl.
We live here because we like the community, its amenities and the proximity to our train line into the city where we work. I'm a fairly frank person so when I'm having honest conversations about race with my fellow suburbanites, they're surprised that racism exists.
That blows my mind. Each and every time. Educated women, unaware that racism is still out there. How is this possible?
Is modern-day racism really so subtle that unless a cross is burning on the front lawn it can't be recognized?
I was talking about this frustration with a good friend of mine Ann, who admitted previously thinking that racism was no more. After all, she figured laws had been passed, banning such discrimination.
I know she's not alone in that kind of thinking, but I don't get it. Most logical people agree that the Holocaust was horrible, but that condemnation doesn't mean some people have stopped hating Jews. Simply because we condemn hatred, doesn't mean the feelings of hate and superiority have magically disappeared.
My husband was born and raised in Norway, but has lived in America since age 19 and he understands racism. Why is it he sees it and people who have lived in the good ol' U. S. of A. all their lives don't? Is it so ugly that they're purposefully wearing blinders?
Like I told Ann: "Open your eyes!" Then she turned the tables on me. She asked what is it that she doesn't see, but she should. My mind raced. For the first time I, an alleged spokeswoman for my race, was stumped.
I thought about how white women (absent-mindedly?) slide a protective hand over their purse when a black man approaches, or a clerk follows you in a store out of fear you'll steal something, or some of the stark language that members of the "No We're Not Racists" Tea Party use.
But those examples don't crop up frequently in Ann and I's everyday life. It's more subtle than that. Just the expectation that I should speak for my people is an example of a use of white privilege. "Hey you! Tell me about your people."
Sometimes I get angry and think, it's not my responsibility to educate you. Then other days, I think, how else are they going to know? For me, the real answers are somewhere in the middle.
Because it is complex, it's best understood walking alongside me. People have to be like Ann and make a conscious decision to become more aware. Eat at my restaurants, come to my church, visit my family. That's largely why my husband gets it. He knows because he knows me and knowing me helps him understand people who look like me.
Of course, in turn I have to be open, invite them into my inner circle and be patient with some of their foibles. Even on the days when I really don't feel like being a spokeswoman.
Like I said, I have an on-again-off-again relationship with white people. Though whenever someone starts to "get it," that makes it all worth it.
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