Say What You See: Being Honest about Race
By Jan Wilberg on July 26, 2014
I started my professional life at 27 as a White girl in a Black anti-poverty agency called the Social Development Commission where the first day I was called out for shrinking back from a hug offered by an associate director who laughed at me and told me I didn't have anything to be afraid of. "It's okay, girl. We're not going to hurt you."
My fear was that I would hurt myself, that I'd say something or do something that would show that I was carrying the same giant load of racist baggage as every White person in America. I tried to pretend that I didn't notice that anyone was Black. A few months into the job, I attended a staff training where we watched a black and white film about a little boy who was being subtly shunned by his playmates. In the film, he wasn't portrayed as Black, his skin wasn't darker than the other kids, but he was clearly an African American child. Called on by the trainer to describe what I saw, I described the whole scene, constructing possible scenarios about why other kids didn't want to play with the boy.
The room exploded in laughter. "The kid is Black! Can't you see that? Why don't you just say the kid is Black? That's why the kids won't play with him. Because he's Black!"
The White girl was afraid to say the kid was Black because that would mean that she noticed he was Black. And that would mean that the kid being Black was important to her, that some kind of negative judgment would be exercised based on that fact. It wasn't a neutral fact that the kid was Black; it was loaded, chock full of assumptions and risks.
"Why are you saying the kid is Black? Does it matter if he's Black? Why does it matter?" It wasn't said but I heard it. What if my racist self leaped to the conclusion that the kid looked Black so he must be Black? It wasn't worth the risk to say. Better to pretend to be blind to race altogether. Above it all, not notice those things. We're all the same under the skin anyway, right?
I think that White people can be so intensely self-conscious about race, so incredibly uncomfortable, that the existence of racial difference becomes the entire reality of an interaction, like the White person is just swimming in the realization that the other person is Black and is worrying about it every second. How am I reacting? Am I reacting right? Do I look like I don't notice? Do I look casual? What is this Black person thinking about how I look? It's like layers of cardboard between the White person and the Black person. Layers of it.
There is just so much going on in that White person's head, so much that is extraneous to what is going on, so many ancient tin cans of racism and excuse making and denial, it's no wonder we're still so segregated in this city, in this country. In pretending that race doesn't matter, it becomes all that matters.
I was lucky. My education in race went on for many years at this agency. I eventually learned to say that the Black kid was Black. I learned not to be afraid of my racism showing. I learned that if there are quotients of racism that mine was pretty small. I learned to relax, to let myself be hugged by people who I knew were not going to hurt me.
I learned to clear my mind.
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