Confronting Racism Part I: When Did You First Become Aware of Your Race?

What a great poster this protester carried. Treat Racism like CoViD 19, it declared: 

  1. Assume you have it.
  2. Listen to experts about it.
  3. Don’t spread it.
  4. Be willing to change your life to end it.

And it’s that fourth one that’s been preying on my mind. What am I willing change in my life if that change could end racism?

A few things have come to mind and, as the weeks go on, I trust many more will evolve.

To start us off, what I have already changed, and what I hope my readers will be willing to change, is that comfortable story I’ve told myself that racism has, somehow, bypassed me. I am not racist, I’ve been able to tell myself. Skin color has never played a part in what I think or do or believe. 

I am willing to change my attachment to that belief. I’m willing to examine my history, my stories, my experiences and see anew.

Here’s Michelle Obama to start us off.  This from an Instagram meme she distributed, which I found on the website.

“…Race and racism is a reality that so many of us grow up learning to just deal with. It’s up to all of us – Black, white, everyone – no matter how well-meaning we think we might be, to do the honest, uncomfortable work of rooting it out. It starts with self-examination and listening to those whose lives are different from our own. It ends with justice, compassion, and empathy that manifests in our lives and on our streets. I pray we all have the strength for that journey …”

“The honest, uncomfortable work of rooting it out.” she wrote. “It starts with self-examination.” And that is where we will start this week. I hope you’ll join me.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC has a helpful site, “Talking About Race” in which they pose four questions. You might check it out if you’re curious what all four are. I’ve taken the first:

When were you first aware of your race?

I’ll share my answer with you today and hope you’ll share yours in the Comments.

[And I’ll try not to get onto my soap box about how race is a social construct; there’s only one (the human race), and we best start using the word that way. We’re talking skin color, ethnicity, and culture here. But that’s for another time.]

When they ask when I was first aware of my “race,” I take that to mean “when did I become aware I was ‘white?'”

And that’s the thing. I never really thought about skin color. Mine or anyone’s. Mine was the one that put me in what we sociologists call “the dominant culture” — the culture that gets to make the rules. As a member of said dominant culture, I didn’t need to learn much about other cultures around me. But they definitely need to learn about mine. And as we’ve learned too recently, for Blacks, their very lives have depended upon this.

So, if the question is “when did I first become aware that my skin was different, in an important way?”  I’d say that I became aware that I was somehow different in skin color when I began hearing the reports of marches and jailings and struggles for justice in the far away south. These were “negroes” the stations said, and from what I could see happening, they were very brave. And the problem, I deduced, had to do with skin color.

That was sometime in the late 1950s; I was in grade school in  East Orange, New Jersey. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing down there while my northern, urban enclave, by comparison, seemed peaceful and neighborly and safe. I believed, then.

I had no idea, until my 50th high school reunion, for example, that the swimming pool that was once opened in my high school had been concreted-in following the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that opened public schools to integration. Yes, in northern New Jersey rather than have whites and Blacks swim together, they closed down the pool. It simply boggles my mind now. But back to my life in the ’50s, I simply had no idea the racism that was alive and flourishing throughout the north.

Thinking it quite sad that there was so much turmoil down south, I came up with an exciting plan (for an eleven-year-old): The USA would send all the Black people back to Africa where they had originally come from. We’d help them get settled, we’d cover all the expenses so they wouldn’t have to pay anything; we’d be really good to them. I was surprised none of the adults I saw on TV had thought of this.

Pleased with my plan, I excitedly told my mom about it.

“But what about Anne?” She calmly asked me. “She’d have to move to Africa too.”  I’d never thought of Anne Dunne as anything other than someone I wanted to be like. She got all A’s, she was nice to me, and she had the perfect family.  I wanted straight As, but even more I wanted a father at home every night and I wanted brothers and sisters, just like Anne. As I look back, Anne was my first role model. She represented to me the way life “should be.”

Now writing of this from my chair in 2020, I can see lots of problems with this plan of mine. Not appreciating that Africa wasn’t a country but a continent is only the least troubling. Already, I looked to the power of the purse for the solution. “We’d pay for everything,” I planned. The condescension, “We’d be really nice,” is more troubling to me. And, that it was me, the white girl, figuring out how to solve the Black problem reminds me that not much has changed in the fifty years since. Did I already assume I was somehow superior?

In an earlier draft of this post I had three stories for you, two more examples of just how entrenched my white privilege was to me way back then, through my early twenties. If “white privilege” is a term that you find offensive, well, I only hope you’ll stay with us to the end.

Next week we’ll move to the listening part. I’m accumulating a wealth of links to books, TV shows, films, documentaries, and TEDx talks. And don’t worry; I’m working very hard to be certain it’s not (too) overwhelming. This week I’ll be weeding through these various lists and pulling out what has helped me the most.

We must educate ourselves, as the protestor in the photo above says. But first we must know where we are coming from; we do that by examining our own biases, stories, and experiences. We must begin by assuming we “have it” and act accordingly.

I hope you’ll share what comes to your mind about being whatever color you identify with — when and how did it begin? What’s been the biggest challenge for you these past few weeks?  What troubles you the most about what these challenges suggest?  



8 Responses

  1. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    I grew up in rural PA around people that looked like me, and my family reached out to others, entertaining Fresh Air children from NYC in our home for two summer weeks. These children were usually Black or Latino, which we expected.

    Because my family was inclusive, I never had a change to “test” my attitudes until I got older. When a black family moved into a former neighborhood, my first thought was “Property values will go down now!” I was so ashamed of my bias that I decided to to something about it at once. I paid them a visit, probably taking a “welcome to the neighborhood” gift of food; I don’t remember.

    They were delightful! Mike and wife, who was Hispanic, both helped our community fight Walmart, Mike mowed the lawn of a negligent neighbor across the street, joining others. I helped him with his thesis when he worked on his master’s degree, lending him a English grammar. Their son did well in my college English class. And so it goes.

    My change of heart was instant in this case, I think because I recognized my prejudice as unChristian and WRONG. Most importantly, I met this family personally. When I saw them as individuals, their skin color didn’t matter to me. Mike, Carena and their girls were among those I missed most when we moved.
    Marian Beaman recently posted…Comment on A Toilet Tissue Tale, Ukraine Style by Jill WeatherholtMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Good story, Marian, thanks. One of the stories I wrote but didn’t include here had to do with the first Black couple to move into my all-white Midwest Ryan Homes neighborhood back in the early 70s. I was thrilled. And eager to go meet them. Finally, I thought! But they lived two blocks away and I realized I would not have sought them out had they been white. What to do!
      Janet Givens recently posted…Confronting Racism Part I: When Did You First Become Aware of Your Race?My Profile

  2. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — I love the poster that the protester carried, declaring, “Treat Racism like CoViD 19,” and the four supporting statements.

    When was the first time I became aware that my skin was different in an important way?

    When I was in the third grade at Rose Elementary school in Escondido, CA, we had an all-school assembly. The purpose was to inform us that a new child would be attending our school—a black child. Up to that point, I’d never given the color of my skin any consideration.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Isn’t that a great poster! I’m always so impressed with the creativity protestors show in their posters. I’m glad this one also resonated with you Laurie and very glad to learn a bit more of your story. Imagine living your life where the color of your skin WAS something you were reminded of constantly. I’m relearning many new ideas these past few months. Thank you for adding your voice.

  3. Terri Lyon
    | Reply

    I don’t remember my first awareness of race. But I realize now, too late, that I should have been talking about race with my children.
    Terri Lyon recently posted…What Can White People Do to Support Black Lives Matter?My Profile

  4. Pamela
    | Reply

    I’ve been learning about race and racism since I was a child and heard my dad say racist things. I’d say out loud “That’s not right, Daddy,” but I didn’t know why I said it, or why he’d characterize one color different from another. When he got older and made friends through his AA groups of many races, he changed his tune and was man enough to tell me he’d been wrong. I studied James Baldwin and Richard Wright novels when I was in grad school and was horrified by racism and the pain they went through as black men. I thought I was not racist at all. Then I read Jodi Picoult’s book Small Great Things a few years ago (fiction, in the words of a white lawyer, a black nurse, and a white supremacist) and was challenged, realizing I most likely am a racist because I DON’T know what people ofcolor have experienced. That book opened my eyes as much as Baldwin and Wright and Langston Hughes, etc. The bad thing is that I have no people-of-color as friends. That’s a horrible situation to be in, and I don’t know how to change it.
    Pamela recently posted…Surfing Self-HelpMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I think that’s how I felt living in the white suburban Cleveland ghetto (upscale as it was, I always thought of it as a ghetto; no diversity at all). There are a lot of online (CoViD based) conversations and workshops happening that you might enjoy. I’m putting my list together for next week post. Per your reference to Jodi Picoult, I am struck often by how much easier it can be to learn to see things differently through a work of fiction. I finally got feminism after reading Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, for example. Thanks for adding your voice, Pam.
      Janet Givens recently posted…Confronting Racism Part I: When Did You First Become Aware of Your Race?My Profile

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