Years ago I was actively involved in a number of spirited and deeply felt blog conversations on race. One of the most insightful bloggers involved posted a question: "What did you know and when did you know it?", asking us when we first became aware of race and how. In response I posted the story of my childhood in Oakland in the mid-60's, when I was staying with my grandparents as the first African-Americans moved into the neighborhood. I related the terrible racism of my grandfather, a hard-working salt of the earth man who hated everyone who was not pure white and from the right areas of Europe, and how I defiantly befriended the children of the first black family to move in down the street. I was a socially inept child that was often the victim of the cool kids (yes, even in Kindergarten), and as such I was very grateful to have friends who didn't enjoy tricking me into 'drinking' cups full of sand, among other juvenile humiliations I endured.Nathan and Lionel were my best friends that year, and i related this story in the effort to make myself sound like the 'good white person', the one who looked past skin color and familial influences and saw the nice children who would not do hurtful things to me.
As I related this story I cast myself as a social misfit, and concluded by saying that I was glad not to be like the 'normal' children who tormented me so, and in doing so showed my ignorance to my own racism. Yes, my own racism. Because just rebelling against the status quo and identifying myself as an outsider in that neighborhood by virtue of my choice of playmates, I was unknowingly reinforcing the prejudices that I carried. Without even realizing what I was saying, I came right out and said that white was 'normal'.
So there I was, congratulating myself for being ahead of my time in open-mindedness, when I was completely blindsided by the following response:
The average human being is a person of color, with dark hair, dark eyes, and non-white skin. To be a person of color is to be 'normal'.
White people have forced 'whiteness' on the psyche of the world as being 'normal' through sheer brute force...you know, the whole domination,colonization, oppression of the world's people of color bit.
I have been approached by people like you in my life, either for friendship or dating, who didn't see themselves as 'normal' white people and felt some sort of kinship or affinity towards people of color because of this. Yeah,I've heard it all before from white people coming at me with Freaks unite!Oddballs rule! Hmmmph, as if I am inherently a freak or oddball or not 'normal' because I am black. This is insulting, on so many levels. It is condescending. It is rude. It is hurtful.
I remember reading this comment and feeling dizzy with shame, because let's face it that's just what I did. And this shook me to the core. It took from me my illusions of being better than the racists that raised me, of having overcome the challenges of my upbringing and grown up to be an enlightened being. I looked from my grandparents' generation to my parents, who considered themselves very tolerant of 'different' people, yet who could not bring up a non-caucasian person in conversation without identifying them with a racial label. They thought they were the good white people too. And then I looked from my parents' generation to myself, and realized that my insistence that I "didn't see color" was really an insult to the people whose color i claimed not to see. I realized that defeating racism did not mean acting as if race did not exist.
Since then, I have learned to see in color. I have learned that my acquired color-blindness was not the answer and, like Devyl,to teach my children about racism. My strategy, had it not been for this eye-opening, would have been to teach my children to ignore the differences of race and color, rather than to embrace and honor them, and to listen and learn and try to understand. I learned that it is one of my most important tasks as a parent not to teach my children 'tolerance', as if differences are something we need to tolerate, to endure; a burden. If I succeed in this, my children will never accidentally blurt out some ignorant remark that reveals a deep flaw in their perspective, where they see themselves as gracious in their acceptance of others. Acceptance is something we have for shortcomings, tolerance is something we have for pain. Acceptance of race is not grace, it is arrogance. So, this is my goal for my children, but what of myself? In truth I am not even sure I am not practicing some insidious form of condescending whiteness in writing this. What I have learned in the intervening six years since the blog post mentioned above, is that I have some wonderful friends on the Internet who have put up with me through my ignorance and provided a gentle education as I struggle to get it right.