Living White

I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact of race lately. That might seem like an odd thing for a middle class white woman to think about but it’s been on my mind nonetheless.

One of my cousins recently posted on Facebook that she had just finished watching The Help and the ending had made her cry. A friend of hers posted “The ending made me laugh. Stupid white guilt.”

The comment made me sad. True, I’ve never treated anyone like that and I never will, so from one angle, any guilt I feel is stupid. But sadness is not the same thing as guilt. Furthermore, the people depicted in that movie were living what they thought was normal. What am I doing right now that feels normal but is actually deeply wrong? How will that “normal” be portrayed in movies 50 or 60 years from now? What impacts are we still experiencing from the damage done so long ago? And do those of us benefiting from white privilege have no obligation to address those impacts?

White privilege is a difficult thing to define and a difficult thing to see if you don’t know where to look and it’s a term that surely makes a lot of people roll their eyes. People like that Facebook commenter, without a doubt.

But acknowledging white privilege is not about feeling guilt. It’s about noticing the advantages you have that others don’t, big or small, simply because of the color of your skin.

A black woman sits in the cubicle next to me. In addition to talks about work, our weekends, movies, family, and everything else, we have frequent talks about race. She, along with a couple of other black friends, has opened my eyes to the disadvantages of being black. Being stopped by a police officer because you don’t look like you belong in the affluent neighborhood you are driving in. Being followed by a store employee as if you are about to steal something. People making assumptions about your socioeconomic status and family history.

One of my best friends growing up was black. It wasn’t until recently that I learned why her mother never let her go to the mall with the rest of us. She was afraid that if there was ever a problem – claims of shoplifting or something – her daughter was the one that would be assumed guilty.

This makes me sad. I don’t feel guilty, just sad. I wish it wasn’t this way. I wish my black friends didn’t have to warn their children about dangers that I don’t have to warn mine about. I wish they didn’t have to put up with things that I don’t have to put up with.

I noticed a subtle form of racism and white privilege in the cafeteria at work recently. A fairly sweet and friendly woman runs the short-order grill. She jokes around with most of the customers and is pretty accommodating.

Last week, a black man waited for his omelet to be prepared. She was preparing it as she usually does, spreading the egg out thin, then adding the contents to one half and folding the egg over. He asked her if she could scramble it all up together, demonstrating with his hands what he wanted.

She did as he requested but rolled her eyes and told him dismissively that it’d taste the same either way. He didn’t respond. She started harassing him. She sometimes sounded like she was trying to joke around but there was an edge to her voice and animosity in her manner. At the end, she adopted a falsely sweet voice and loudly announced, “Here you go… SIR.”

I found her behavior rude and when I had the opportunity, I slipped away to tell the man that I prefer my omelets scrambled too. She accommodates other odd requests without the kind of belligerent behavior I witnessed that day, but I didn’t make the connection to the possibility of it being motivated by race until today.

Today, I waited in line behind quite a few people. I had a lot on my mind and wasn’t paying much attention. Someone had apparently asked to have his sandwich put in foil instead of the styrofoam box. A woman, black, said that she’d like hers wrapped in foil as well.

I didn’t see the first person get his food but I watched as the grill lady wrapped the woman’s sandwich in foil and then place it in the box. I mentally shook my head, thinking I bet the woman wanted the foil instead of the box.

Sure enough, when she handed the box to the customer, the woman said, “I didn’t want the box.” She then removed her wrapped sandwich and returned the box. She wasn’t overly friendly or demonstrative or apologetic about it but she also wasn’t rude or upset. She was just matter-of-fact. I don’t want the box. Here it is.

When she walked away, the grill lady rolled her eyes at the next customer and said, “As if she expects me to be able to read her mind.”

I was taken by surprise. The customer had not expected her to read her mind. She had misunderstood and the customer had clarified. So why the animosity?

I thought back over the many times I’ve stood in that grill line. The only two times I can think of her being disrespectful to a customer’s wishes was with these two people, who shared one distinct trait.

Was I experiencing a small form of white privilege? Were all of us white people going through that line being afforded more respect than the black people? Did we have more right to express our wishes? To be served by friendly and helpful staff? To ask for something special?

I believe we were. Now, there’s always the possibility that when you start looking for something, you’ll see it even where it isn’t. I recognize that. And maybe I’m doing it now. Or maybe I’m finally waking up and truly seeing what’s going on around me. What I’ll do with the enlightenment is still an open question.

A Terrible Dichotomy

Today possessed a terrible dichotomy for me. It started off well. Last night, Jane’s small 7-person string ensemble performed at the sixth grade Christmas concert. They were dwarfed by the choir and the large band, but they performed admirably.

When it was over, she announced that she really wanted to play in the band next year. This is enough to warm the heart of any parent who was herself a band nerd. But then she told me that while they were waiting for the concert to start, the cellist had asked her to hold her cello. While holding it, she played Witches Dance, a fun fast song that she plays well on her viola.

A man standing nearby told her that she was very good. “That’s not her instrument,” her instructor said. “She’s never played that before.” That anecdote sent my spirits soaring. I love tales of her musical accomplishments. I went to work this morning feeling as though my daughter was the most wonderful, most talented child on the planet.

Later in the day, I talked to her PE coach about some trouble she was having at intramural practice. I wanted an adult’s perspective on the situation. In the course of the conversation, she told me that she thought Jane was one of the better volleyball players. She was convinced that Jane could make the A team at the middle school next year. I was beginning to feel the effects of oxygen deprivation, I was flying so high.

And then, it all came crashing down. I work in a cave. This is figurative, of course, but sometimes it takes a bit for news from outside to make it to me. But finally it did this afternoon and I learned about the horrible shootings in Newtown, CT.

Like all people, I was stunned and left numb. I was angry and sad and desperate to deny it. And then, like all parents, I couldn’t help but put myself in those parents’ shoes and imagine the horror of it happening here. This process, which I have engaged in many times, was made even worse because I was so full of love and pride for one of my children at the moment I learned the news. I imagined all that potential and promise ripped away.

The world does not deserve to be denied what my daughter has to offer. The world did not deserve to be denied what those children had to offer. I spent the afternoon in a hollow and empty shell.

That shell filled with family life when I got home. We went to a Christmas party. Hal met Santa for the first time. Eventually, however, we found ourselves at a restaurant and the day’s events smacked us back in the face. We don’t have TV at home, but this restaurant did. And Jane’s side of the booth was facing it. My precious, innocent, promising, wonderful daughter came face to face with the reality of a deranged man. When she finally lost control, she sobbed, “How can someone kill their own mother?!” She cried about how the children would never learn to play the flute. When we got home, she cried because they probably had Christmas presents under the tree that they would never open. They’d never learn to drive a car. They’d never have kids.

I did my best to put the pieces back together. I reminded her that everyone has different experiences. Everyone has a different life span. Those children are at rest now and aren’t regretting the things they never got to do. Their families need her prayers though. I took Mr. Roger’s advice and reminded her of all the “helpers” she saw on TV. The police, ambulance workers, doctors, and nurses. The social workers and counselors and teachers. Friends and family and neighbors and strangers all pitching in to help. “It was one bad person, honey, but hundreds of good people there to help the people that need it. Hold onto that baby, and pray for them all.”

Now let me tuck you in so I can take my turn curled up in a ball crying on my bed. About the senselessness of it all. About the anguish of watching your idyllic childhood view of the world crumble a little bit more into every adult’s reality. I love you my sweet angel and I am so thankful you are still here.

Assassination Ruminations

Back in 2008, when Jane was in the second grade, she came home with a school assignment to determine who she thought ought to be elected President. Many parents would take this opportunity to properly indoctrinate their child to their own way of thinking. My husband, however, is not like many parents. He told her that she needed to decide what she was most concerned about and then he would help her compare the two candidates based on those concerns.

Being in elementary school, her primary concern was… school. Together, they ventured off into the world-wide web and after reading and discussing, she triumphantly announced that she wanted Barack Obama to be President. Even though she was definitely in the minority when she returned to school the next day, she stuck to her guns. She was elated the morning after the election when we told her he had won.

Some time after that, she approached me with a worried look on her face. “Mommy? I’m afraid someone is going to try to shoot Barack Obama.”

This concern had crossed my mind as well. But I very carefully adopted a neutral tone and asked why.

“Because they shot Abraham Lincoln because he was trying to help black people and Obama IS black and there’s still a lot of people that don’t like black people being equal and he’s the President so he’s kind of OVER them, you know?”

I do not recall how I responded. I probably confirmed that it was a possibility but we can hope and pray that it doesn’t happen. She wasn’t done thinking about it, though. A few days later, she had more on the topic of Presidential assassinations.

“Mom? You know how someone shot JFK and then someone shot him?”

“Yes. Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK and then Jack Ruby killed Oswald.”

“Well, if that kept happening, eventually there would only be one person left on this earth…” {pause} “And then if an alien came along and killed THAT person, there’d be no one left. I bet the animals would be peaceful then.”

Sometimes the wisdom that comes out of a child’s mouth is stunning in its simplicity and truth.

Echoes of Andrea Yates

I remember my childhood baths, laying back until the bare minimum of my face was above water: eyes, nose, mouth. I loved how it felt, how the water made the world sound so different, so muted. My children have not shown a similar interest. In fact, it’s a battle to get them to lay back at all.

Therefore, I have always felt a surge of love when one lets me lay their head back to wash off the shampoo, so accustomed I am to stiff elbows firmly planted. Every time, I gently assure them, “I’ve got you. It’s ok. Just lay your head back. Feel my hand behind your head? I’m not going to let go. You won’t get water in your eyes. I promise.” When they do lay back, they look up at me with eyes full of trust. I smile back and enjoy the peaceful moment.

Our first child was barely eight months old when the horrible news came of a Houston mother, suffering from postpartum psychosis, who drowned her 5 children in the bathtub. That story haunted me for years. For awhile, anytime I would coax my children to lay back and trust me, I would think, “Is this what she did? Did she tell them to trust her? Were they looking back up at her with these same eyes?” And my smile would falter, just for a second, before I could shake it off and remind myself that I am not her.

Our youngest, being the third child, got weaned from baths to showers early. We rarely had time for bath playtime. But since bubble baths were so important to me as a child, I recently began to make time. Besides, once he splashes around a bit, all the dirt has been soaked off by the bubbles. All I really need to do is rinse.

And so it was that I found myself on my knees next to the bathtub, coaxing little Hal to trust me and lay his head back. The water wasn’t deep enough to come up over his head, but I cradled it anyway. “See, it’s ok. No water on your face.” He emitted a nervous giggle, then beamed up at me. And then she returned. “Is this how her kids were looking at her? Did their expressions turn to horror?”

I hadn’t thought about her in over five years, but here she was tainting my maternal moments again. Will it always be this way? When I bathe my grandchildren, will I think of Andrea Yates? Will I have to shake the memory aside to enjoy my little bright spot? I honestly don’t know.

The day after that recent bath, the radio brought news of a Dallas mother who drowned her child. Since then, I haven’t been able to keep this comparison out of my mind: a healthy mother enjoying the sacred trust of her children during bath time versus a mentally ill mother who violates that trust. I thank God that I have never had to deal with the warped mind that these women struggle with, that I will not have to live with such horrid consequences. And I say a little prayer for them and their children. Maybe that’s why her echo still rings in my ears.

I apologize to those of you who have enjoyed coming here to read my lighthearted accounts of the children. Every time I have thought about writing, this story bullies its way to the front and demands to be told. So here it is. I promise to return to the lighter fare next time. I promise!