I remember the very first time I realized I was just a white girl. And I don’t mean in the sense that I became aware of my skin color and how it differed from that of my darker skinned friends. I mean the first time I became aware that I was JUST a white girl. With privilege I didn’t ask for or want.
It was May of 2005. I needed one final English credit and a linguistics credit and found a Maymester course which satisfied both requirements. It would mean fewer hours at work for three weeks, but three weeks!! I would officially be a senior in college.
The course turned out to be a film studies course on race and ethnicity in the media and literature. I learned more about myself and the world in those three weeks than I had in the previous four years of college courses.
Our final would be a presentation covering what we’d learned about our own race and ethnicity while taking the course.
That’s when I realized I was just a white girl.
My race is one of oppression and my ethnicity, if geographical locations can be considered such, was “southern,” which, given history made things doubly worse somehow. What could I possibly contribute to this discourse that would be meaningful in any possible way?
I said as much in my final exam.
“I’m just a white girl. I don’t really HAVE an ethnicity.”
I got an A.
The second time I became aware of status as just a white girl came a few months later, during a discussion in one of my education courses, and once again I was caught off guard. I railed against the lesson, grappling with the words written in one of our required readings.
The author, Lisa Delpit, asserted that white women couldn’t teach children of color, Black children specifically, because we didn’t understand the cultural differences and coded language used by Black mothers and teachers. Those students wouldn’t respond to our methods of asking nicely instead of giving direct orders.
“But students are students! HOW DARE SHE say I can’t teach children of color!! HOW DARE SHE!”
I was angry. It was visceral. I said as much.
This woman who didn’t even know me deigned to assume what kind of teacher I would be to students who didn’t share my same pigmentation. She didn’t believe that I was capable of reaching ALL students. Was she REALLY going to advocate for classrooms segregated by color and teachers assigned to their respective students based on race?!
That was not what she meant. That was not what she meant at all.
I learned that lesson soon enough, though at the time I was too colorblind to see it.
Colorblindness doesn’t work.
Teaching our white students and our white children that race doesn’t matter and doesn’t exist isn’t working. We think we’re doing a good thing by saying “we’re all the same underneath our skin” and that’s true. We are.
But change isn’t happening because we’re not acknowledging the very serious realities of what it means for the rainbow of people living in America, and the truth is that it’s very different for each of us. Easier for some and much, much more fraught with anxiety and oppression for others.
The situation in Ferguson, MO last week has dredged up some feelings about race and ethnicity and being just a white girl that I’ve been trying to swallow for quite some time now. I’ve tried and tried to hold them in because once they escape I can’t take them back. I know that. You know that. We all know that.
I’m just a white girl. And lately I’ve been hearing a lot of “sit down and stop talking because this isn’t your issue and it’s not your fight.”
But this IS my issue and this IS my fight because I believe in the interconnectedness of humanity. That while we’re all different, change doesn’t happen unless we all make it so, and I can’t make it so if I say nothing.
When I think of the suffragists, I think primarily of the men who lobbied and protested and picketed to secure women the right to vote. They didn’t have a dog in that fight aside from believing it to be a fundamental right of all citizens of the United States. They already had the right to vote. Why should they care if women did?
They cared because it was the right thing to do. They recognized their privilege and how silencing voices oppressed a group of people.
I care not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because I believe in the fundamental right of humans NOT to be afraid to leave their houses or send their children into the world. I believe in equality. That our children–that WE–all deserve to be treated and seen as equals in the lives of the public AND the law.
I recognize my white privilege and, quite frankly, I hate it. I didn’t ask for it. I don’t deserve it. Maybe that turns my white privilege into white guilt. I don’t know.
So I guess I better put it to good use.
I want to amplify the voices sending the messages we all need to hear. I want to share the stories of those mothers living daily with the fear of letting their young men out into the world, because while all mothers fear their children leaving the nest, even to make a trip to the store, the fear is very different for mothers of color, particularly in the wake of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, John Crawford III, and Trayvon Martin.
I want to stand up and shout that racism–covert, overt, systematic, systemic, and everything in between–is unconscionable. I want to know how to teach my son what to do should he see racism occurring around him, how to fight against it, and how to stop it for good.
I want that because I want a world for ALL of our children where none of them fear anything other than the ordinary parts of adolescence and adulthood.
But the truth is I’m scared.
I’m terrified because I’m just a white girl. I don’t want to step on toes or offend or seem like I’m attempting to silence the voices that matter or shout more loudly than anyone else. I just want to throw mine into the mix and be heard.
I want to do better for my children, yes, but mostly I want to do better for yours.