I am a white girl. My eyes are brown, my skin slightly olive, and in its natural state my hair is very dark brown. Where ever I live, I look like whatever the popular miscellaneous minority is; I have been mistaken for Italian in New York, Native Alaskan in Alaska, Native American in Kansas, and Puerto Rican/Cuban in Florida.
White and black chess knights, Image Credit: Shutterstock
No one guesses that it is my Jewish heritage that provides my coloring. However, although I have been mistaken for many different ethnicities, I have never been mistaken for black. I do not know anything about racism. I have a few friends who are black, but most of my friends are white. I live and have predominantly lived in suburbs. I say this so you understand that I do not know anything about what it is like to be black in America.
Let me interject here that I am confused about the proper term for race. African-American is currently in vogue, but not every person with dark skin identifies as being of African descent. Some people identify as Haitian, or Caribbean, or Cuban, and while they may trace their roots back to Africa, it is less relevant than the country they actually come from. I am choosing to use the word "black" in this essay because it is a counterpoint to "white", and I am no more the color of snow than black people are the color of night. I get it, but I need a word and I am choosing the word black out of simplicity. If there is a better word, feel free to put it in the comments section and I will edit.
The more conversations we have, the more human we are to each other. We make mistakes, we offend unintentionally, but we need to keep talking and listening to each other. Besides, aside from blogs and essays about race, most people prefer to be called by their names, not their group. They don't want to be know as my black friend, or my African-American friend, or my Friend of Color. They want to be known as my friend.
I was recently at a bar with a group of women. None of them would identify themselves as racist. One of them, a teacher, told a story about a friend of hers, "the whitest black person she knows" and how the friend's children try to be ghetto and hip with the other black kids at school and how hysterical it was because the child has, once again, the "whitest black person" for a parent.
I made eye contact with one of the women at the table who I know is married to a black man. She looked wounded, but didn't say anything, just like I didn't say anything. I looked away, unable to handle the knowing and not saying anything moment.
I didn't know what to say to this group of women who meant well and didn't think they were doing anything or saying anything wrong. I didn't say that I thought it was probably offensive to excuse black people who are "white acting" as not really black and therefore acceptable. That perhaps fitting into black teenage culture is important to black teenagers, and that black kids that aren't raised in the ghetto maybe struggle to find their place. Maybe white teachers don't really know anything about it.
I didn't say anything because I didn't know what to say. I do not know if I am too sensitive or not sensitive enough, and I couldn't clearly enunciate why this conversation bothered me at the time, or why it bothers me still.
This is what I do know:
I don't like to be called "not a bad writer for a woman."
I don't like people to say, "But you're not really Jewish."
When men use put-downs like, "You throw like a girl" I get enraged.
I have never entirely forgiven a Christian friend for calling me a "Jewess."
From my personal experience, I imagine black people don't like to be described as "white sounding" and probably don't like to be excused as "the whitest black man/woman" as if being whiter is better, as if only white acting/speaking people are acceptable. I am pretty sure my friends of color want to be selected as friends because of their hearts, their values, their humor, their kindness, just like I would. And it doesn't feel kind to explain to other white people that you are only friends with a black person because they are white acting. It feels racist, even if you mean well.
I do not know what it is like to be black and I do not know first hand about institutionalized racism. I do not know what it is like to be anyone other than a white girl. And maybe the beginning to understanding each other is to say, I don't know how to talk about this, but I want to. And maybe that conversation is important to start even when it is awkward and you don't know what to say or why something bugs you. Even if you don't have the words, even if you don't want to offend, maybe it's time we look at how we talk about other races when we don't think anyone else is listening.
More from living