I can remember the first time it happened. It was the beginning of the school year and I was in second grade. A little girl with dark skin took up the desk next to me, but I had never seen her before. It quickly became apparent to me that she did not speak English. I was intrigued. I went home and borrowed my elder cousin’s Spanish textbook and became obsessed with learning her language. I wanted to know everything about her. She was so different. And I loved that about her.
It wasn’t long before my teacher moved her desk. She began to spend most of her time in ESL and, though we stayed friendly, she understandably felt more comfortable with the children that spoke her language, those that could say more than, “Hola! ¿Cómo estás?” But the largest rift occurred when my teacher began to actively thwart my efforts to learn more about her culture. “She should be learning English,” she would say, “instead of learning her language, why don’t you have her learn yours?”
And that was it. From then on, I was encouraged to help those around me assimilate to my whiteness. To my “Americanness.” The largest gift I could offer my non-white classmates (or so I was taught), was to look past the color of their skin and invite them into our lily white world. I encouraged my black friends to join the Girl Scouts and play lacrosse. As a generation, we became known as the “millennials.” But, culturally, we became the first of a certain order of missionaries: we weren’t invited to celebrate our racial differences but, instead, were encouraged to abandon them. There was no white/black divide because, really, what we were taught to see was only white.
As I grew older, this colorblindness only became more ingrained as my anti-racism tactic because the only attempts at creating a dichotomous world were so clearly rooted in ignorance, fear and bigotry. I would hear adults in my blue collar, white community warn one another to avoid certain neighborhoods because the “blacks” lived there. Parents of white children would decline birthday invitations to black friends’ parties, but offer to pay for the black friend’s lacrosse equipment. They were sending a message: join us or stay away from us. Colorblindness was welcome to exist, but only if the color was white.
Of course, inviting the “other” to partake in our culture of charades and Girl Scout cookies was not in itself problematic. It was the whitewashing of any culture that came to be seen as “Other.” The more we were taught to wear white-colored glasses, the more we welcomed a second-tier to the racism cake. For every hockey rink that became more diverse, a basketball team remained just as black. Each lacrosse stick grasped by black hands only left an empty spot on the school’s STEP team. And for every black kid embracing the Beatles, there was a white mom smashing the latest hip-hop CD under her Coach loafers.
My daughter will be four soon. She will soon be sitting in a classroom that looked a lot like mine: full of Latinas, Blacks, Asians and Whites. She will notice they are not all like her. She will notice the differences in their skin, their clothes, their accents and their language. She will become aware of her white privilege and, in all likelihood, she will be taught to extend it to them. To offer them a hand as though she is pulling them aboard a life raft from a sinking ship. And she’d be right to notice that their ship is sinking. And she will probably even be aware that her white privilege had something to do with it. But what I need her to know, too, is that the ship isn’t sinking because it wasn’t sea worthy. It’s sinking because it’s the only way her people are allowing those on board the “Other” ship to stay alive.
We see it on the news every day. The justifications for white supremacist actions by creating a media image of blacks behaving in very non-white ways: the way they dress, the jobs they work, or the neighborhoods they live in. Or the insensitivity to their subjugation: the proclamations that more whites were killed by cops this year (I should hope so, seeing as our nation is 79% white), or this preposterous #alllivesmatter movement (I would need an entirely new blog to even begin to address why that is inherently racist). And all of that is deeply problematic, but let’s also not forget that the Ku Klux Klan not only still exists, but has apparently developed enough brain cells, collectively, to put together a functioning website. As a white woman with distinct racial privileges, it would be nothing short of crass for me to not acknowledge the legitimacy and importance of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
I’m not sure that I have the answers or even know where to best place my desire to be activistic and not a bystander, but I am going to begin with a small, yet important, project. Her name is Eva. She is three. And as long as I’m living, she will be allowed to ask a black friend if she can touch her kinky hair.* She will be encouraged to ask her how it feels to have dark skin in America. Or ask her Chinese friend why she eats seaweed for snack. She will know the lyrics to every Tribe Called Quest song and she will expand her own world by embracing the differences in everyone she sees. And she will not attempt to extend her white privilege to her non-white friends but, instead, will seek to create a world where her own white privilege is abolished.
*Please see comments below. And please feel free to keep this conversation going- it’s critique and openness that contributes to this much overdue discussion of the role of race in our relationships and the way we conduct our daily lives. Thank you, Karen, for sparking the conversation. And my deepest apologies to anyone I may have offended.