I have always felt uniquely unsuited to write about race. I have spent my life cultivating white guilt.
As a family story goes when I was three I was held in the arms of a older man with brown skin. I reached up and stroked his face. And asked “Why don’t you wash the dirt off.”
What can I think of that?
I grew up in a predominantly white suburb of Boston. Our elementary school was a receiving site for the METCO bus program, where kids from inner Boston would travel to our neighborhood school to receive the same education as the white kids in our town.
In second grade Tiffany became one of my best friends…but she couldn’t come to my house or my birthday party because her bus took her home right after the school day. Why I didn’t take the train to see her or have my mother drive I don’t know. But I didn’t.
The one regular person of color in my life was the woman who cleaned my house three times a week. Three. Times. A. Week. I hung out with Ethel Monday, Wednesday and Friday. When I went to play at a friends house in 5th grade my world was rocked when I saw Ethel there on a Tuesday. I was shocked to see her outside of our house. I was even more surprised that they called her Mrs. Coleman. My surprise switched to shame and confusion. She WAS Mrs. Coleman. I didn’t manage to change the way I addressed her…she had been in my life since “bunny” was my best friend, but I did stop putting clean clothes in the laundry hamper simply because I was too lazy to refold them. Looking back that was not a particularly strong statement for equality.
After college I moved to Vermont. Today Burlington is a refugee resettlement site, but when I arrived it was not. Vermont was as white as the snow that blanketed its winter streets. In the middle of my time there I had a single black friend who was greeted like an intruder by my racist dog every time he came over.
We were very close, for a while he lived with Steve and I. One day he borrowed Steve’s car and got pulled over for doing pretty much nothing wrong. Then he had trouble because it wasn’t his car. Although we can never be sure it was because of his race it seems likely.
Without knowing how to create more of a balance in my sheltered life I decided to focus on the next generation. Steve and I sent our boys to a pre school that served the entire community, and for a time they existed in a classroom that mirrored the world rather than the bubble we lived in. It was short lived though, we moved to a suburb of Burlington where the public school where hair color ranged from white blond to dirty blond.
When we moved to Denver I thought we could really mix things up.
The schools directly across the street from our house are a public elementary school separated from a public middle school by a large field. The day we toured our house to decide whether or not to make an offer I was swayed by two factors. One was the 70 degree sunny day in February. The other was the happy squeals of the kids filling the field. They were all shades. They were running and screaming together. Finally our community would not be de facto segregated.
So we moved and went down to one car and began to adjust to a more urban life.
Then the first morning of school arrived and we gathered in the playground of the elementary school. And virtually all of the kids were white. Like, as white as Shelburne. I asked my friend what was up. I referenced the recess I had celebrated last February.
She explained that was the middle school…and it was a completely different demographic than the elementary school. Which I could see. After fifth grade the majority of the families from our upper middle class neighborhood school take advantage of school choice and ship their kids out to Denver School of the Arts, or the Science Academy, or the Mandarin immersion school. They leave the neighborhood middle school, and its slots get filled with kids that arrive on busses from different parts of Denver.
I know this story.
A few weeks ago a piece that I wrote for a website got syndicated. The service that picked it up used a stock image to illustrate the article. It was an African American couple in bed. This piece had run word for word on two other sites before this. It was about sex so there were a fair number of comments on the websites and even more on the site’s facebook page. This latest publication was different though.
I had only 3 or 4 comments on line. And scads of personal emails. Hate emails. Emails that told me that I didn’t understand how hard white people worked. That black people could fuck as much as they wanted but whites were more refined. That god didn’t allow what I was talking about for “people like me.” I got anonymous comments that wanted to strike me down. I have had some hate notes and trolls over the course of my blog life, but nothing like this vitriol.
I guess I can believe it.
I deal with a fair amount of prejudice…fat shaming, antisemitism, judgment about mental illness. But nothing nothing nothing like this.
I really don’t know how to conclude this, because for now there is no conclusion. I don’t really know what to do. I was raised to accept everyone, and I try, but somehow deep down I am the three year old that asks a man with brown skin to wash his face.
I don’t want to be.
I never did, but the hatred that I experienced for the first time first hand makes it seem more urgent.
Does anyone have any advice?