White Like Me
For the past few days, the Bay Ridge and Bay Ridge Parents Facebook groups, usually home to posts about what time summer stroll starts and where to buy a potty chair, have erupted with a stream of vitriolic dialogue in reference to Al Sharpton and the protestors who boarded buses in the neighborhood on their way to their peaceful protest in Staten Island. It has been painful to read the conversations, and impossible to figure out a way to respond to them in the confined space of a comment box on Facebook, and many have since been deleted. Following is my response.
Being white, I did not learn how to grow up with a shield against racism the way my husband has. I do not have at hand the arsenal of defenses that he has developed over the years: Be nicer, more polite, and smarter than they expect you to be. Never talk or fight back, always walk away first if you can. Keep your friends close and your frenemies closer.
I’m tired of being cordial. I’m a mom, I have a career, and I certainly have enough to fill my plate. I don’t need to impress anyone and I don’t really care who I alienate. You can cross the street when you see me, just like you would if you saw my husband coming—oh wait, you don’t do that because you know he’s one of the “good” ones.
For the record, let me say once and for all that if you grew up white in America, unless your name is John Howard Griffin, please stop making comments about anything that has to do with dealing with racism. You don’t know, you never will, and neither will I. The more you talk about being color-blind, the more you are showing your true whitewashed colors.
And if you think that it is just a poverty issue, or a criminal issue, or a neighborhood issue, or an anti-police issue*, the following is an abbreviated list of some things that I’m guessing my white friends with white husbands and white children who grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, have never had to deal with, but which my middle-class, law-abiding, educated black husband and children (and myself, via them) who grew up in the same neighborhood have:
- Having garbage thrown at us while we were looking to buy a home in the neighborhood we both grew up in.
- Getting pulled over for random traffic stops (without any apparent violation) in our neighborhood and being warned to “get home quickly.”
- Getting taken into the police station as a suspect for a major crime in which there were eyewitnesses whose descriptions did not match you at all, except for being “young black male.”
- Getting pulled out of work by detectives continuing with the investigation of then boyfriend/now husband.
- Never being informed that you are no longer a suspect in the aforementioned investigation, and still waiting to hear more than 20 years later.
- Having anonymous letters sent to my parents stating that they would burn down their house if I continued to bring my then boyfriend/now husband to their summer home.
- Having my children (and nieces/nephews) be called a slave, Oreo, penguin, n***** in and out of school, all before they’ve graduated elementary school.
- Having the same children be told by classmates that they couldn’t have gotten that good grade, or be in the g&t class, or be Latino/Italian/Irish, because of the color of their skin.
- Seeming to be the only one to notice that the essay posted in the hallway at that elementary school during open school week which started “If I could live in any place in the U.S. during the 1700s, it would be the south so I could have slaves,” might be offensive to some children and parents.
- Consoling my husband when he’s upset after a woman jumped away from him, thinking he was about to mug her when he got out of his car outside of our home, and knowing how much anger he has had to swallow his whole life from countless similar incidents, and wondering how that has affected his health and well-being.
- Listening to my husband tell our sons not to wear their swim-team caps under their wool hats when it’s winter and cold outside, because someone might think they’re thugs, and wanting to say that he’s being ridiculous, but knowing that he’s right.
- Listening to my husband tell our sons that they are not allowed to get a flat-top, corn rows, or design shaved into their heads, because of the way he knows they will be judged accordingly.
- Having to worry that someone will think that my honor-student teenage son’s pants are falling down because he is a thug instead of the real reason, because he is so skinny that even super-skinny jeans with a belt fall below his underwear.
- Having to tell my sons not to put their sweatshirt hoods up at night.
- Having to tell my sons that they even if they don’t ever break the law, they have to be prepared to be questioned and possibly detained by police, and how to act in a way that is not only respectful of authority, but that will not ever put their lives in danger.
- Being repeatedly hurt by the posts of the people that you have known and loved all your lives.
- Having to smile and politely answer ignorant questions and comments such as:
Are they your kids?
Is that baby your husband’s? He’s so much lighter than your first son.
Why would you care if there are no other black kids at a school? I don’t think of your kids as black.
Does your husband wash his hair?
Your husband isn’t really black, he’s white inside/he acts white.
He’s so cool (nice/normal/smart/insert adjective) for a black guy.
- Feeling sometimes that truly, your family is
alone on a little island and that when the chips fall, the people who have
surrounded you most of your life may not be around to stand by your side.
Please understand that this is all because of a little extra melanin. My husband and I were both raised in this neighborhood, both grew up Catholic and went to Catholic school here. The difference in the amount of that chemical in our skin should be negligible compared to all our similarities. It’s not. I will not even begin to touch on all the racism that his family encountered when they first moved to our neighborhood in the 70s.
Just know that when your skin is a darker color, there is no way to avoid being seen as “other,” no matter where your family lives, no matter where you go to school, no matter how law-abiding you are, no matter how many teams you coach, no matter how intelligent you are, no matter how much you dress and speak and act like everyone in the majority group. You cannot just teach your children that everyone is equal, because everyone is not treated equally in our society, and white children need to know that, too. To pretend that relentless different and biased treatment wouldn’t affect the very being of someone’s soul is to be completely blinded by white privilege. So own it. I do.
* I promised my husband that before I published this I would make known that I did not write this as an attack on any police officer, or any police department. We have friends and family on the force, and he has a cousin who was a NYPD detective shot in the line of duty. This is a response to people who have no experience or understanding of systemic oppression speaking or commenting as if they do, and who made me feel like I had time traveled back to 1989 and still had to apologize for my end of Brooklyn.