I was five years old and in Kindergarten when I made my first best friend. Her name was Kamisha. She lived across the street from me in the new house and town that my family had moved to. I was white and she was black, but I didn’t know that when I was five. All I knew was she was kind, fun, beautiful, and smart, and she was all that I was looking for in a friend at that time. I was happy. I was not alone at school or in the neighborhood. We were nearly inseparable.
I’m 45 years old now. I’m still white, only now I know that I’m white, and now I recognize much of the privilege and power being a 45 year old white woman in North America holds. AND, because I know this, I want to have a conversation on race and equity. Social Justice is so core to my being that I feel compelled to engage in this conversation even though I know I will get it wrong at times and upset many in the process of speaking my truth, and I’m here to do it anyway. I hope to learn along the way and to work on dismantling the system of racism and inequity we all inherited. I did not invent this system of racism and inequity, but I did inherit it. I believe that because I inherited the privilege this system was built to promote, I have a responsibility to dismantle inequity and racism and to help rebuild a better world, a world of true racial equality.
I don’t have all the answers to how this work is done. This work may need to be done brick by brick and piece by piece. It may be challenging, some may say impossible, and I must commit to doing my part. I believe the cost for us as individuals, families, communities, nations, and the world is too high if we don’t at least begin engaging somewhere and somehow. We white folks in particular must engage in this work, we must engage in awareness building and move into action to help propel change. So, I invite you to join me, a 45 year old white woman, in a Conversation Of Race and Equity (CORE).
I’ll begin with what I remember…
I don’t remember the moment I learned I was white, but I do remember the moment when I learned my friends were black. That is so illustrative of one way white privilege works.
I was in the third grade, and I moved across town where I was attending a new school. It was at this new school “Squaw Creek Elementary School” where I met Tammy <<<side note: the name of my elementary school says volumes about the state of racism in my childhood hometown>>>. Tammy and I became fast friends; it wasn’t long before we wanted a sleepover at her house. I remember well the day her mom came to pick me up for our very first sleepover. I was so excited when they arrived that I immediately went out to meet them. Standing at her car and loading up my stuff, I could hear Tammy’s mom talking to my mom “What, Sarai didn’t tell you Tammy was black?!?” <<<Truth be told, until that very moment, I didn’t know Tammy was black. In fact, I didn’t know anybody was “black”>>> In that moment, I looked at Tammy, and for the first time I noticed her skin tone. Then, I looked in the window at the reflection of my own image. I had a lot of dark freckles as a child, did that mean I was black, too? What did being black even mean? I was so confused, as I heard my mom ramble off something like, “Oh, well she knows that doesn’t matter to us so she didn’t have to say anything”.
I reflect on that moment ever so often and wonder what prompted Tammy’s mom to say something to my mom. What kind of look did my mom give her or what did my mom say? Why did Tammy’s mom feel the need to check my mom’s implicit biases before she took me home with her for the night? What if…
What if Tammy had been white? Can I imagine a scenario where one white mom says to another, “What, Sarai didn’t tell you Tammy is white?!?” No, I can’t. <<<Big Sigh>>>
My white parents thought they were quite progressive, particularly my dad (who got to make all the rules in our house - we can discuss patriarchy in another post;) He was raised in the progressive San Francisco Bay area in the 50’s and 60’s. He was a surfer, scuba diver, and a hippie in his youth. I learned from my mom in my adolescent years that he had made the decision that they would raise us children to be “color blind”. We were so progressive that we never talked about race in our household, except, perhaps, when every Halloween my dad would retell the story of attending a Halloween party in blackface and shackled like a slave, his evidence for how open and accepting and “not racist” he was…<<<another big sigh>>>
I only learned years later in adulthood what a privilege it is to not have to talk about race in our North American household, just one of the many racial privileges us white folks have.
See, Tammy and her family did not have that same privilege, and they talked about race a lot. I continued on in my young white naivety while hanging out with Tammy and her family, but I did begin to notice. I noticed when for Tammy’s birthday we had to hide in her mom’s car a block away from her friend's house so that friend’s mom could sneak her out without her racist dad noticing she was going to a black girls party, which was forbidden in their home. I noticed how I was treated differently in public when I was with Tammy and her family, I felt extra noticed everywhere we would go (commenting in passing - “Look at that cute little blond haired and freckled face girl”, pointing at me - “Isn’t she cute”, talking to me - “Hey little girl, are you OK?”). I felt so special, so noticed, and this in a world that (generally speaking) publicly shows children very little mind. What if…
What if when I was out hanging with my white childhood friends, adults constantly commented on how cute we were, asking us if we were OK and making comments about our beautiful blond hair and white freckled faces?
I’ve learned over the years that often I can ask the question “What if?” to help highlight racism I am too blinded by my whiteness to see. This happened more recently when my daughter called me upset one day because a sweet elderly white couple had approached her and her daughter publicly to comment on how beautiful her daughter’s skin color was and to query, “Is her father black?” My daughter was calling me in judgment of herself for feeling so uncomfortable, protective, and offended when it seemed all this couple was trying to do was to be kind. I asked the question, “What if…”
What if I went up to little white babies in public and approached their parents to comment on how beautiful their baby's skin color is, then asked the question, “Is their father white?”...No, that would be so odd and preposterous that I’m anxiously waiting for someone to do a tik tok about it. <<<if you’re a tik toker, this is your cue>>>
By calling out the absurdity of racism through asking the question “What if?”, I believe we can then work to shift it. I challenge you to give it a try.
I’m a 45 year old white woman. I didn’t invent racism, but I did inherit it. Do I accept it (“whites are superior”), reject it (“I’m not a racist”), or work to shift the system (“What if?”).
I want to learn more ways to do the latter, and I hope you will join me as we explore further Conversations On Race and Equity with a 45 year old white woman - me!
<<<Don’t be confused by my last name - I am 99.9999% white, but I am married to a mixed brown/white man - and that is a story for another CORE>>>
Until next time.