Seeing My Whiteness

What are my earliest memories of being aware that I was white? That seems a very different question than asking when I first noticed other people’s skin color.

My mother told a story about a trip to New York when I was really little. My dad was in the Navy and was signing paperwork to re-up for a few more years. They had a car and offered another sailor who was black a ride. Apparently, I was afraid of him and kept saying something about him being pink. You need to know that I had spent the first years of my life in Morocco. Darker faces theoretically should not have been unusual so, why the upset?

When I was around two and a half, my mom left my dad, and we went to her parent’s house in the country outside Fairhope, Alabama. My grandfather made a living collecting pine sap and turning it into turpentine. Again, no personal memories, but I’ve seen pictures of a black man named Mose that worked for him. In the photo, he’s sitting in a chair in their kitchen, holding a plate of food. My understanding is that when somebody took this picture, the rest of us were sitting in the next room eating. Probably my mother, since I have the picture. He was a person I was familiar with, and apparently, I wasn’t in the least afraid of him.

From the vantage point of time, I wonder what was going on in the adults’ minds involved in these stories. None of them are alive to ask about it, but I can take a guess based on incidents I do remember. The New York story took place in the late 1950s, and it was a fellow sailor. My parents were probably only mildly embarrassed at my childish behavior. On the other hand, they probably didn’t blink an eye about Mose not eating at the table with everyone else. But what did the sailor think? Mose?

Fast forward to when my daughter was little. It was the mid-1990s. I was a working mom, and my daughter spent her days at a home daycare run by a Cuban American mother and daughter. The mother cared for my daughter. She spoke Spanish to her and cried when I moved her to a nursery school closer to my work when she was around one and a half years old. The lead teacher, Jody, was a very experienced black woman.  The first week was rough. A new place, new people, and my daughter cried when I tried to leave her. Jody said not to worry. That my child probably hadn’t seen many black people. She’d seen it before, but it always worked out just fine.

I knew I was white at that moment. I’ll never forget the shameful feeling of being so white and living in a bubble of whiteness. I thought I wasn’t racist. My work world was multi-racial. But it was heavily steeped in the “I don’t see color” denial. I lived in primarily white North Fulton County. I wondered whether my little girl was crying because new places are scary or afraid because Jody had a different skin color than she did. Jody was right that it all worked out. She came to our house, bringing her niece with her, to baby-sit. My daughter named her white baby doll after her. But Jody and I never had a conversation about it again. I didn’t ask what she really thought.

But I didn’t understand the amount of space that I take up as a white person without giving it any thought until a couple of years ago in the grocery store. I was running into the grocery store to get one thing on the way to somewhere else. I was walking fast and focused on finding the item I needed and wondering why Kroger thought they had to lay out every store just a little differently. I was annoyed and barreled out of an aisle into the path of an older black woman pushing her cart full of groceries. The alarmed and fearful look on her face stopped me in my tracks.

The space I take up matters. I have no right to move thoughtlessly through the world, and my self-centeredness has significantly more effect on those with brown and black skin. Changing requires breaking a lifetime of habitually asking first and foremost how things affect me. As I listen to the news or make everyday decisions, the lens through which I look must be broader. I must ask, “How does this affect people of color?” I can’t assume I know. I must ask. I must listen and remove myself as the central opinion to be considered. How could I possibly justify not caring about their wellbeing? It’s not a sacrifice. It is an act of love.

I’ve come relatively late in my life to this point of view. White culture still has a strong gravitational pull towards centering self. I need a more substantial practice of resisting it than just being hospitable to people in my building or sincerely grateful to the lady at the self-checkout. So I seek out places to use my skills to support women of color who are leaders. Sometimes, I don’t believe anything has or will change in the world around me. But if love can continue to change me and the seeds of freedom to change are planted in even one other person, love has grown.

Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life.

Romans 8:11 (The Message)

Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

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