~~ Originally printed in Carrboro (NC) Free Press, January 2009 ~~
As a white woman in a progressive society, I don’t often think about matters of race. After all, it doesn’t really affect me, right? As a white woman, I mean.
Oh, sure, I am aware of race. I have the sense that if someone is not white, then his or her race will be one of the main ways I will catalogue that person in my brain. “She’s the black woman who teaches…” “He’s the latino guy who writes…” I’m pretty sure I have never said, “They are the white couple who work…” I don’t mean to do it. I certainly don’t want to do it. It makes me feel a little ashamed. But I do it, and I’m not the only one.
As a white woman, I watch my children, and I see that they genuinely seem to choose their friends based on “the content of their character” and not on “the color of their skin.” It’s really quite marvelous. They relate to each other as people, not members of one race or another. They even know how to play with someone who doesn’t speak the same language, communicating in the way kids do. I learn what enlightenment looks like from these little people more than I do from the grandest preacher.
But then I remember. When I was little, I lived in Durham. My best friends on my block were Cuban and African American. I remember the taste of cumin and black beans and rice. And I remember the awful crick in my neck that came from bending over the kitchen sink while my mom tried to wash Afro-Sheen out of my long blond hair.
We moved to Chapel Hill when I was six. It was a really big neighborhood. One of my best friends was Jewish. There was an Indian family across the street. But really, just about everyone was white. Because we were progressive, though, it was OK. We knew that all people are created equal, so it was acceptable for us to somehow segregate ourselves in our relationships.
As a white woman, I’m fully willing to allow race to be the elephant in the room. I’d really rather not talk about it if that’s all right with you. Can we agree that racism is bad, and—whew!—are we ever glad to see the end of it. God bless Barack.
February 12, 2009 marks the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the NAACP. I’ll give you a moment to think on that. One hundred years. Segregated schools. Lynchings. Beatings. Back of the bus. Jim Crow laws. Firehoses. Bombings. Sit-ins. Marches. Assassinations. Affirmative action.
And now, the first African American President of the United States of America.
It’s a resounding crescendo of a centennial. A beautiful milestone in our country’s history. But we still have quite a way to go before we reach the mountaintop. I think we can see it from here, but the road to the top must be paved with courageous conversations about race, and none of us can walk that path alone.
Some of us laughed at the close of Reverend Lowery’s inaugural benediction. Some of us cringed. I did both. But the words have an undeniable place in our nation’s struggle for civil rights:
“Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back; when brown can stick around; when yellow will be mellow; when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right.”
As a white woman, when I heard those words, I was not affronted by any implications of prejudice against my race. Rather, I felt that there was a flippancy that somehow disrespected the sanctity of that day, of that moment. I thought he was making a joke. Little did I know.
Lowery was referencing an old schoolyard rhyme that would’ve had real meaning for many people in his audience, people of his generation for whom this inauguration was especially profound: “If you’re white, you’re alright; if you’re brown, stick around; if you’re yellow you’re mellow; but if you’re black, get back.” But he really was not concerned with how I felt about his words. He wasn’t speaking to me, as a white woman.
And when I saw our beautiful, beatific new president smiling at the Reverend Lowery’s words, I realized how quickly I can dismiss something that I don’t understand. And I was aware, as a white woman, how much my own personal experiences are not the collective experience, and that assumptions are folly and ignorance is simply dangerous.
I mean, I knew that already. But it’s all very easy to forget if you don’t often think about matters of race. Which I don’t, really. As a white woman.