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February 24, 2006 / allyo

White, not white

This article (a few months old now) struck a few chords with me. I grew up in a 99.99% white environment. It was the 70s, our neighborhood was white and my Catholic school was white. I think the only exposure I had to people of color was a friend of my grandfather’s and I only saw him occasionally.

My grandma has a complicated relationship with race. She doesn’t believe in "mixing" and once referred to the apartment complex my mother was living in at the time (with her black boyfriend) as a "zebra colony." Oh yes, she meant it to sound just that derogatory too. But she’s always had black friends. And she herself is one-quarter native american, which only complicates things further. Her legs, beautiful, shapely, and hairless, are her "indian legs."

I guess you could say I grew up with mixed messages in regard to race. I was taught that we were all equal, and that I was to respect everyone, no matter what their skin looked like, but people of other races were, for the most part, "other." I remember when I was in maybe 2nd or 3rd grade, the one black girl in my class and I were friends. We got in to an argument, and in the heat of the moment, I yelled at her, "You just think you’re cool because you’re black!" She burst into tears, and the teacher, who overheard this exchange, was appalled. I was told to appologize immediately, and I did. The thing was, with my blond hair and blue eyes, I always felt so ordinary. Dark hair, dark eyes, dark skin, those were all exotic, and when combined, well, that was the most exotic and exciting of all, right?

My shame at my teacher’s reaction festered in me all day, and finally that night, after laying awake in my bed for some time, I got up and confessed to my grandparents. It was excruciating, but they were kind about it and tried to explain a little more calmly than the teacher why things like that were not nice and not to be said. My memory is a little fuzzy, but I believe the girl moved or changed schools not too long after that. I do know that we weren’t friends any longer.

This early ignorance became general awkwardness as I grew older, still ensconced within my all-white, all-Catholic school world. I remember as a squad leader in high school marching band, the other four girls, all black, all freshmen, gave me major lip and attitude and hassled me for my whiteness. I remember feeling shut out and insignificant in certain college classes, unable to interact with certain black classmates because I knew that they knew. I was a whitey-white, white bread, white girl.

I’m not sure how or when I worked through all that, but now, as an adult, I’ve gotten past it. One of the things that attracted me to MD is that he can talk to anyone, no matter their race, age, sexual orientation or the state of their bank account. I saw that easygoing manner, how likeable he is, and knew I wanted my children to be like that.

There are a lot of reasons why I will not send my child to Catholic schools, and this is one. When reading about Celeste’s transformation in the article above, it hit home for me that there is no school, really, like that in our city. And definitely not one like that in any of the suburbs. We’re a very segregated community, and even the urban areas I’d be interested in living in are white, white, white.

So what’s a parent to do? Although I did not choose our daycare provider on this criteria alone, she is black, her assistant is black, and her kids are black, white, and asian, and a few are a mixture of some or all of these. But we still dont’ have very many friends of color. Gay friends, sure, black or asian or hispanic, not really.

Attitude will have a lot to do with how Jamie perceives "other" people, and I know he at least won’t receive the bizarrely mixed messages that I do. But it’s not the same as actually living with, talking with, and playing with kids that don’t all look exactly like you.

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