I am born in 1966 to white, professional parents and raised in a predominantly white neighborhood, in a predominantly white community, in a predominantly white Pacific Northwest city in what my two teacher parents only half-jokingly term “genteel poverty.” In the present, I have to think back and picture the few friends from my childhood to remember which ones (two, I think) weren’t white—it’s not the first thing I think of when I think of them.
I’m ten years old and watching Roots (the original). I am horrified. It makes me afraid of Southern white people (and honestly, I still am, a little bit, especially of the male variety). I think, “I’m so glad I didn’t live back then.” I think, “I would’ve saved them.” I think, “How could anyone be that evil?” I think, “I’m so happy that people these days aren’t held down because of the color of their skin.” I must say this last one out loud, because my parents quickly disabuse me of that notion—but make it sound like that sort of thing only happens in the South. I’m relieved. Still, I have nightmares spawned by this series for years.
I’m talking with the black man I’m dating about our childhoods. He’s just returned from a visit home, and we’re at the Ivy Leaguish West Coast university he’s attending. At one point, he stops and is quiet. He looks angry and something else…grief, maybe. He tells me he doesn’t feel like he fits in anywhere.
I say, “Not even back home?”
He shrugs, doesn’t really respond. And then he passes his hand over his face, sighs and says, “I’m different when I’m home. If you ran into me with my friends on the street back home, Lisa, you wouldn’t know me.” And then he looks up, right into my eyes and says, “And I wouldn’t know you.” He isn’t trying to be unkind—he’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. He’s just stating the reality, or maybe the duality, of the life he lives in order to survive in our world.
“So which one is the real you?” I ask.
He shakes his head. Says, “I don’t know,” and the look on his face makes my heart hurt.
I’m spending the day in the garment district of L.A. with a Chinese-American friend. About halfway through the afternoon, I start to feel…prickly, kind of like everybody’s looking at me without looking, like I’m out of place or they’re surprised to see me. No one is mean to me, just the opposite. Why do I feel so strange? I suddenly realize that the only Anglo face I can remember seeing all day is my own reflection. I’d never consciously thought about people who are a different race than me looking “different.” But that evening, my predominant takeaway is, “How weird would that be? To spend your life only rarely seeing people on the street, at work, in the store, that look like you?”
I read "Beloved." More nightmares.
I’m working in admissions and development for a Christian school. I’ve been working hard to beef up our financial aid program so that cost isn’t an issue in admissions – so our student body can be more reflective of the kingdom of God instead of reflective of an ability to pay tuition. One of the people I’m consulting with about admissions at the school is one of our Bible teachers, also a pastor at a local church, who has his kids at the school. His is one of maybe five non-white families at the school, out of about three hundred families and nearly a thousand students.
In the midst of this, I put together an admissions packet with a catalog, lots of pictures of students, and teachers working with students. It turns out great – I’m really proud of it. My co-worker, the Bible teacher, walks into the admin offices after I’ve had a ton of them printed. I can tell he’s frustrated, but doing an exemplary job of maintaining. He points out that it’s a book filled with white faces—not one person of color in the entire packet. He says, not unkindly, “I’m trying to encourage my friends, my congregants, to send their kids here, and I’m going to do it with this?”
Damned if he isn’t right. Every single one of those catalogs goes into the trash and I spend money I don’t have to reshoot and print something he can use, kicking myself the entire time. I feel naïve, ignorant and angry—not at him, at myself. I’m trying so hard to do it right, and my own blindness blind-sides me over and over.
Mathew McConaughey says, “Now imagine she’s white,” in "A Time To Kill."
The Two Thousands
I’m talking with an acquaintance about moving to this small town where we now live—me, my two sons and my husband who has been hired to be a tribal archaeologist. She’s telling me why, when they moved to our area, she’d chosen to live in one of the towns on the edge of the reservation, rather than in one of the other towns she could have chosen. She says, “I checked out properties in those towns, and this might sound weird to you, but the way people stared at us... At least here, my boys’ faces aren’t the only brown ones.”
I listen to her. If I hadn’t had some of my previous experiences, I know in that moment exactly what my response would be. I would’ve minimized her reaction. I would’ve laughed it off. Maybe not to her face, but I would’ve thought to myself, “People stared at us, too, when we rolled into town. That’s what people in small towns do—they stare.” But because I’ve had those experiences, just a few, my honest response is this: “No, not weird at all. I get it.”
In fact, I am getting it, more than I’m willing to admit at first. It takes time for me to get my brain around it, and this is where things get tricky.
When we move to town, many of the white locals think, because my husband is working for the tribe that my family are tribal members, or at least related somehow. You can’t always tell from looking, but we aren’t.
Initially, I pass off the stuff that happens to us, the looks, the people holding us at arm’s length, the way people stop talking when we walk in, my kids getting hassled by the police when they’re playing around the neighborhood, the getting stopped as I’m coming back onto “the white side” from the reservation, at night, no one else in sight, for the broken taillight or the going three miles over the speed limit.
This is the weirdest one: another family moves to town about the same time as we do, to take a job with the tribe. The husband in that family is a tribal member, the wife is white. They have two children, a girl and a boy. Some similarities there, yeah. But it takes a good couple of years before many locals stop confusing our families for each other. I’ll give you that maybe she and I could be taken for relatives, but beyond that, these are not families to be confused with each other. To the white folks in town, though, we are white women married to tribal guys who work on the reservation, and to them, we all look alike. What do I call that? It’s like group insanity.
To this day, I might be able to convince myself that I imagined it all. That my kids got hassled, not because their dad worked for the tribe, but because they were “walking while homeschooled,” (which is a thing.) That it was just an issue of being the city outsiders in a small town. Except for this:
After eight years of tribal employment, my husband takes a new job with the federal government. But we don’t move away. The federal job is in this same small town, but on the white side.
The next time I walk into a store in town, it’s all smiles and rainbows, congratulations and felicitations. All “I bet you were relieved when your husband got that job!” (As if the only rational explanation they could come up with for my husband taking a job with the tribe was because he couldn’t get other work.) It leaves me speechless…literally mouth hanging open. Community projects I’ve been pushing suddenly get easier to accomplish. Support starts to appear magically out of the woodwork. We aren’t the other anymore. No longer do people have to stop talking about “those tribal people” when we walk in the room—lucky us…
Do I believe it was some grand conspiracy? No, not really. It was a group of people unaware of how being themselves could hurt others, and even if they were aware, seeing no reason to change because was that really their fault? It was people being afraid of something they would never think of doing (“How weird. If they’re not tribal, why would he want to work for them?”) It was people being anxious about what it meant to be associated with a culture they didn’t understand (A neighbor actually asked me once: “What’s going on out there?” How do you answer that?). It was people afraid of our motives, but more willing to hold us at arm’s length than get to know us.
I look back and try to learn because the alternative is unthinkable. I have barely dipped my toes into race relations in this country. I see, “…as through a glass darkly.” A few college experiences aside, I’ve never been much of an activist. The places where I’ve worked for change have been responses to situations God has placed me in and my attempt to love the people He’s put in front of me. Maybe that’s enough. I used to think so.
But now I know that me just being me can hurt others, and while that may not be my fault, it is my responsibility. Love demands that I don’t shrug that off, that I at the VERY LEAST acknowledge it. That I believe people when they tell me their experiences, like I hope people believe me. That I don’t just buy into everyone’s rhetoric but I also don’t turn away. That I be open and aware enough to be part of the solution when those opportunities are available. That I be willing to risk the nightmares for the people who’ve had no choice but to live them.
That if I’m honest with you, and you’re honest with me, maybe there’s hope.