Am I A Racist? Or Am I Just White?
What I know is that I don’t really know how to write about this. What I also know is that it is my responsibility to learn how to.
It is not the responsibility of the black community to fix me. It is my responsibility to own my own feelings and actions. It is time for white people, like me, to stop seeing people of color thru a lens of fear. It is time for each of us to look at each other as individuals, not as part of our “in” group or their “out” group. It is white America’s problem to fix the systemic racism that has infiltrated our culture. It is our table to set out and invite the “others” to come sit at. We are the ones who need to learn, to be open to new ways of seeing. This is our responsibility, we need to take it on. I feel compelled to write this today. Today, when the country is AGAIN protesting murder, a hate crime against a man whose only “crime” was being black and accused of something nefarious. I am on the other end of the “crime” spectrum. No one ever thinks I do anything wrong. Like our president once said “I could shoot someone in the middle of Park Avenue” and the arresting officer would still call me ma’am.
I am a middle aged white woman. Cops never look twice at me. I am invisible on their radar. I could exploit that invisibility and smuggle drugs or stolen goods or do as much illegal and profitable shit as I want while I drive around in my Dodge Grand Caravan. I could put a kilo of coke in my back seat cover it with a beach towel, and run a red light with no consequences. If I get pulled over I can just smile at the cop and say, “oh my, I’m so sorry” and get off with a pat on the shoulder and a warning. Me and my kilo would just go on our merry way, and I would be able to make a fortune. I have a wild imagination but don’t act on it. But today, I am out of control imagining some of the things that I would like to do. All of them are legal but all of them involve screaming at cops or politicians. I did not ask for my white privilege but I have exploited it by living a life made easier and more comfortable by it. I have a lot of work to do. I have a lot of responsibility to my community that I have not taken on. I have let down myself and my family for not being true to the feelings I have, or the fears that I have harbored and are unwarranted.
But who I am, like every other person on this planet, who I am today is a complicated being shaped by experience. Someone with a past that has shaped me and a future that I would like to shape. I am self aware but driven by forces in society that also shape my identity. I am educated, but come from a disadvantaged background. I am creative but limited by my own fear. I am white, I am working class, I am liberal, I am I am I am. I am unique, just like everybody else.
First, I am trying to decide if, like the officers that placed no value on George Floyd’s life, I am a racist. I don’t know many people of color. I live in Maine, its a pretty white state. It is also the oldest (as in age of people who live here), state in the country. So I live somewhere where there are a lot of old white people. I live here because I love to hike, and go to the beach and love being in a small town. I was raised in the city and wanted more than anything to not live there anymore when I became an adult. A white adult. In a country that I always believed gave equal opportunity to everyone. I guess I really got that wrong.
I had a lot of options, and one of the first was going to Northern New Hampshire for college in my teens. In 1976 at the ripe old age of 16, me and maybe half a dozen other “poor” kids from New Haven who tested well and were eligible for federal grant money went to Franconia College in Franconia, NH. The college was a small, alternative liberal arts school teetering on bankruptcy, that lost its academic accreditation a year later. We were a motley group. All of us somehow the “other” either because of race, about half of us inner city transplants were black, or poverty. We had no clue how rich white kids dressed or acted and believe me I got it wrong every way possible. I was ashamed of who I was. I felt shame that I did not fit into this world. And seeing that world of white privilege for the first time, I wanted in. And I had the option of getting in, I just had to learn the rules.
I talked wrong for one thing. I said “dis” and “dat”, and used the word motherfucker as an adjective in most sentences. I dyed my hair, sort of a bleached out red with dark black roots, lots of black eyeliner and platform shoes. At home I was bad ass. I looked like I could handle myself, and I didn’t get my ass kicked near as much as I would have if I didn’t look tough. This facade wasn’t working here. I had landed in upper middle class white, privileged America and I was now an outcast.
I have no friends from the year I spent at Franconia. Not one. No one I remember as being particularly nice to me. No one that thought I had any value. No one asked me to go to parties, no one complimented me when I did a particularly good piece of work in the textile studio. Nothing. And to top it off these privileged white assholes protested us being there. Protested that they had to share their space with us, the rifraf poor, the kids getting a hand up: make them leave, get them out of here. The elite, whose school was going down the tubes, didn’t want us there. They had sit ins, and panel discussions, all very civilized. But the bottom line was, they wanted us gone, or they wanted us to change and be more like them.
Later in my life I went to college more normally. I actually worked for a large corporation and went at night. I remember a sociology professor telling us that people that were upwardly mobile, who left one social class and aspired to another were the most measurably lonely people out there. Fast forward 30 years and she was pretty correct. We come from somewhere we can’t go back to, and have landed in a place we don’t quite belong. But this is an essay on whether I am racist. I had the option of this societal move. I have white skin, I have a pretty face. It was easy. Not so for the young black men I once knew, nor the young black women who I once hung out with, and left behind in a city gutted by white flight. A city that now is being gentrified and pushing the people whose home it has been all along to its worst fringes.
I have spent my life doing all the changing. To be more like the white kids at Franconia that knew how to be cool. To fit in. To be a respectable, middle class white woman, who didn’t come from the streets of a city that was torn by race riots and class war. I have worked by whole life to hide that I was once the other, the outcast, the one no one wanted to be around. And no I will not write about my past anymore. Just that I ran from it, and being white and female I had THAT OPTION. I had white privilege before it was even a term that I knew. I was born with it.
So here is what I think. I think that I have a responsibility now. It is not the responsibility of the black community to “help” me get over my racism. It is my responsibility. It is my responsibility to put out the table and to expand my tent for all to come in. It is my responsibility to include myself in the struggle that people are going through to just be seen for who they are. We all have an “I am” it is up to each us to look other people in the eye, to see them for who they are. We are not Lego warriors on some stage that is 2 dimensional. We are here on the world stage dealing with a pandemic that should be pulling us together as a country, but due to poor leadership and political divisiveness has polarized us again. STOP. Just fucking stop. We are all people.