“So do they just give you hell, because you’re white?” she asked before even landing in a chair at the campus Starbucks where we’d agreed to meet.
I was a couple of semesters into graduate school at Howard University, part of a journey that both brought me to and had taken me away from Arkansas. Raised in southern Africa by white American parents, college in Arkansas near where my grandparents lived, on to a Master’s in history and then, upon the recommendation of my MA-program, Howardite advisor, to HU—the best place, he’d said, to finish my particular project. Acquaintances would call it “a series of interesting choices,” as though choosing the best academic institution was a stroke of social experimentation.
In the course of all of this, I spoke often with my fellow white Americans. They’d sometimes ask empathetic questions and listen to long-winded answers. More often than not, however, people made comments like the one above, dropped in half-aggressively to another conversation. These began shortly before enrollment. It seems that every(melanin-lacking)one had a brother’s ex-girlfriend’s niece’s best friend’s grandmother who attended an HBCU and suffered some traumatic ridicule—even in the days before the likes of Rand Paul or Rachel Dolezal further populated this urban myth. It continued with questions like “Are they just mean to you all the time?” or “Do they sit around and complain about white people nonstop?” From “What foreign language do you have to take? Ebonics?” to “But you’re so short and small!” The last one particularly confused me, as though small stature has anything to do with academic standing and . . . oh, it’s about physical threats to white femininity from communities of color. I get it.
This is not a unique story, either in my own context or in wider Arkansas (or America). I grew up hearing constantly that I was American while people born and raised in the United States—people who know all about Schoolhouse Rock and Star Wars and whatever else you guys were doing here in the 1980s and 1990s—continue to have their American identity questioned. I returned in high school to American questions about riding elephants to school and why everything is so messed up over there because I saw it in a movie or that one news story and whether those white southern Africans are just the worst because somebody has to be more racist than us.
So many of these comments take place in the context of “just making conversation.” They are intended to be innocent conversation starters. They’re supposed to connect us across some commonality. And that is where discussing them gets thorny.
Because so many—even most—of these comments come from people who claim to have _________________ friends and who would think it impolite to utter these particular words to a person of color. Who volunteer on MLK Day. Who read Ta-Nehisi Coates and voted for Barack Obama. Maybe even twice. And innocent though these comments seem to those making them, they believe the fact that racism is not just night-riding in a white sheet (though it is also that), but the degree to which “we” see a line between ourselves and “they.”
While these barbs may range, they all take place within situations where white people (who often publicly profess to be skin-color blind) feel comfortable admitting that they do in fact possess a strong racial identity. They end, mostly, with me feeling that I should have responded more and/or more forcefully.
This is not a unique story in a wider American context, because a large and increasing number of Americans spend large amounts of time in communities from which they differ racially or ethnically. More than one-quarter of marriages transcend the construction of race. Adults adopt children who look dramatically different than them, and people befriend each other (like, real friendship, not the “I have a _____ friend, so I can say whatever I want about their kind” type) across the squiggly, constantly moving color line. Many people exist simultaneously on multiple sides of it and have for centuries. But, in those (often many every day) lingering conversations where we look around a room and assume a similar experience based upon skin color, we ask each other to give accounts of some of our most profound relationships in a sentence or two following the barbed question. We assume—those of us living within a dominant culture that usually allows complexity and nuance for itself--that race is a unifying impermeable which ensures that every interaction with “them” will follow the same formulaic pattern. We view PWIs as normative and HBCUs as problematic, even though the latter exist due to white racism. These private assumptions say more about our true feelings on race than the out-of-context MLK quotes we post every third January Monday.
Of course, everyone has different experiences with this, but I write only about the one I know. As fiercely protective as I feel of the spaces in which I’ve lived daily life—where patient teachers taught me to read, write, and think, where I received warm receptions and generosity, and where I met lifelong friends and mentors—I’ve always found it difficult to answer those questions in a way that is sufficiently defensive but not unrealistically glowing. It is only in the context of such conversations that we realize daily life might seem profound.
White privilege has often allowed those of us who live with it to move comfortably and with the illusion of self-control through our careers, relationships, and even foot-to-mouth interactions. It has given rise to the lie that we can claim to be colorblind while still asking what life with “them” is like. As we listen to each others’ stories, I pray that those of us within dominant culture use the color consciousness we so often claim not to possess to understand that words often have deep, hurtful meanings—to use them wisely, and listen with an ear for better understanding.
Myra Houser, Ph.D.
History Professor, Ouachita Baptist University
Resides in Arkadelphia