teaching, learning and living around the world
New Acquaintance: Where are you from?
Me: The States… Virginia
NA: Where’s your family from?
Me: The south. Tennessee and Mississippi mostly.
NA: Yea, but like… where are they from originally? Like, where in Europe?
Me: I mean, we are really just straight up white americans! And have been for like… 300 years!
So let’s talk about race.
In kindergarten, one of my besties was Shakeria. I don’t think I consciously knew it yet, but she was black. Somewhere in an old box I have an adorable photo of us sitting next to each other at the reenactment of the first thanksgiving and we’re both wearing pilgrim outfits.
By the time I got to third grade Shakeria and I weren’t that close anymore, and I had befriended the three other white girls in my class- Lee, Katie and Claire. I didn’t wonder then, but I wonder now… Why did that happen? Neighborhoods? Busing? Subliminal messages from the media? Our parents? Or was it just friends changing friends?
In fifth grade I was conscious about the fact that the TAG classes had more of my good friends in it, and my good friends were all white. The regular classes were mostly non-white. I didn’t think too much about it, that’s just how it was. I also became conscious of the fact that my mom listened to Mix 107.3 but if I wanted to keep up with the cool music kids at school knew, I needed to listen to WPGC 95.5… burnt toast and coffee time!!!
In my 6th grade social studies class, I remember having to do a group project. The teacher assigned Danitah to be my partner. I definitely remember being nervous about calling her house, because I had never called a black person’s house before. Now I think- isn’t that weird? How, at 12 years old, did I get this idea that it would be strange to call the house of someone of a different race?
That was the same year that I went to a black church for the first time. One of our classmates, Jerry, died and the funeral was at his church. I remember noticing how different it was compared to my church. People sang so much louder… and actually danced. I remember wishing that my church had more passion like that.
The 6th grade was also the first time I met Yaw. I’m pretty sure he had recently arrived from Ghana because when my science teacher assigned us to share a microscope I remember thinking he was dressed kind of funny. (Little did I know then that he would end up being my prom date senior year.)
By the time I was in 7th grade, I was sure that being white equated to being boring. Being white was just not that cool. In my eyes, the coolest white girl was Lindsay G because she was the only white girl in a mostly black school choir and when they sang Kirk Franklin songs she would belt out notes like Whitney Houston. Hearing her sing somehow made being white look slightly more cool. I remember inviting her over and we would tape ourselves singing Mariah Carey’s Hero. Good times.
In the 8th grade I went to the Dominican Republic for spring break and got corn rows. When I got back to school my black civics teacher told me I was a pretty brave white girl to have corn rows. I remember feeling embarrassed that he said that. I didn’t really get it. I just wanted corn rows because corn rows look badass. (Plus the way white girls wore their hair was always too boring!)
In my early teens I continued to want to show the world that I was not just any old boring white girl. So I dressed in really bright colors- mixing pink and orange and neon green. I remember kids in the hallway saying, “Dang girl, you look like a pack of SKITTLES!” I think also around this time I bought a book of Yo Mamma jokes. It was pretty awesome, but I also remember knowing that I could never actually tell any of the jokes related to blackness. I was beginning to understand the rules of language, and that being a white girl meant that there were things that I should not/would not say. I also remember standing up to some of my extended family in the south, shocked by some of the things they’d say with my then weak rebuttal of “But you just can’t SAY THAT!”
In high school I dated a few white guys and had mostly white friends. Then senior year I dated Yaw. That sixth grade microscope partner from Ghana had become a totally cool varsity soccer player. I remember on the one hand, it being totally fine. On the other hand, it was a bit weird… but I think it was just as weird as anyone in high school dating someone from outside their friends group. I remember going to prom together, but then we went to separate after-parties. Mine, with my mostly white friends and his with his mostly black friends. At the time, that seemed totally fine… But now looking back- it seems so bizarre and segregated. I think we broke up on good terms like a week later- me going to UVA and him becoming a VTech Hokie and all… that would clearly NEVER work! (Wahoowah!)
At UVA I felt like I was drowning in a sea of whiteness. When my parents dropped me off I remember whispering under my breath, “Where’s all the non-white people?”
In my entire dorm there were like… two black people. My hallway was all white girls except for Lauren, a Puerto Rican who I immediately befriended. All these white girls would talk about taking diet pills and wanting to be more skinny. I was like, “Where I come from having a big butt is a GOOD thing!” Lauren and I bonded over our “alternative” views of beauty, forming the BBC. Big Butts Club. I also remember thinking it was REALLY weird that most of the white people didn’t even know who Lil’ Wayne was. I wondered, have they been living under a rock?!
I spent several weeks feeling angry, and even set out to write a paper for my freshman english class about how racist UVA’s admissions policies must be…… annnnnd that’s the first time I looked up the demographics of my high school compared to UVA compared to Virginia compared to the USA. I had assumed my whole life that since I went to public school, the demographics at my school were representative of the demographics of all of Virginia and all of the United States. Boy was I wrong.
I think I need to pause to make fun of myself here. How overly dramatic, right?! It wasn’t like growing up I had some ridiculously diverse group of friends. Sure, at school I was friendly with anyone and everyone. But all the kids I hung out with outside of school were white! I suppose at that time it was just so weird for me to be at a school that didn’t have way more diversity. Or perhaps at the very least… more white people who were more knowledgeable about… other music and… other standards of beauty and… ya know, anything other than their boring white selves!
Then I took an anthropology class, and the wild professor blew my mind with the idea that race is a social construct. I remember trying to convince my brother of this, and getting really annoyed when he would spout off cultural differences between white america and black america. Obviously, I was aware of these differences but I think I’ve always wanted to believe that our commonality was stronger than our differences.
I’d say social life at UVA was pretty segregated. There were white fraternities and sororities and black fraternities and sororities. Even outside of those, most parties were mostly white people and then there were also “black parties.” I don’t even remember how I heard about them, but I definitely went to a few. It was fine- nobody ever looked at me weird or refused to let me in. I dated a mixed guy named Matt for a while. His dad was from Ghana and his mom was Chinese but adopted and raised in America by Jewish parents. Of course I’d seen “Save the Last Dance” by then so I was always worried about having some kind of “Stop stealing our men!” kind of incident, but that never happened. We eventually broke up.
During my second year I joined a mostly white rugby team, and had mostly white friends for the rest of college.
After my second year I decided that anthropology was too wishy washy for me. Politics classes seemed to be dominated by this strange breed of white boy who took way too much pride in memorizing the newspaper, wearing bow ties and acting like he knew everything already. Sometimes I’d have daydreams where I’d be bold enough to ask, “Boyyyy, why you gotta be frunt-ennnnnn?!” But then I’d wake up and remember that this species of white boy wouldn’t know what frontin was. And little things like this made me feel cooler (deep down on the inside) than other, more regular white people.
I started to study history.
of American Cities.
of American Women.
of the Civil War.
of the Civil Rights Movement.
History and music classes were my favorite.
American Roots Music
African American Gospel Music
Stuff White People Like. Cracked me up.
The Boondocks? Still love it.
The Butler? Non-stop crying from start to finish.
I have grown up loving, hating, admiring, despising, laughing at, crying over… feeling both ashamed of and inspired by the history of my country. As a white american I never had a huge, startling aha moment about my race. It’s been more like the slow accumulation of these small tales.
By the time I graduated from university I knew that my story was not the only story, and that my perspective is not neutral.
As I journeyed toward understanding others, I grew a deeper understanding of myself.
Who I am, where I’m from, how I see the world and why I see it that way.
And then I moved to Africa.
And everything I knew about race was turned upside down and inside out and I had to start all over again.
More on that another day!