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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Growing Up White and 'Normal'

Are you colorblind?
Most white people grow up in homes that don't talk about race. Of course we are taught to treat everyone like equals, and that the color of one's skin doesn't matter. In essence, we are taught to be colorblind.

On rare occasions race might actually be mentioned in conversation: "I was talking to Dan, you know the new African-American history teacher." It might be whispered quietly like a dirty word. Or maybe someone might say "ya know, this black woman at the grocery store just wouldn't hurry up through the checkout line," as though her race (or her gender) was somehow relevant to the story.

Neither statement is overtly prejudiced per say, but they reveal an innate bias many white people grow up with: that we are normal. That white is the default, and anything else is set aside as 'different.' In many communities, it can truly seem like this is the reality (See post: Segregated). Even today, white children can grow surprisingly old before they ever have a conversation with a POC.

White folks grow up with the idea that we are generally "a good (read: colorblind) people." We've heard that story in evangelism before. "I don't do anything really bad. I am basically a good person." Yet we know that there is more to the story of salvation than that. We can see that the world is messed up--we have all needed to clean up our act at one point or another. Rarely do people experience their sin in big batches of evil. It is in little nibbles at a time.

So too with racism. Growing up, I would often wonder why the handful of black kids at my school always hung out together. "Weren't they perpetuating their own isolation and segregation?" I would get frustrated with people living in the inner city. "Why were they so lazy? why not just suck it up and get a job?" I would become indignant in college with the black student group began a protest about some minor comment in the school paper. "Why are they always so angry?" 

These were my symptoms of racism. They are deep and systematic. They are hard to eradicate because they were subtle and ingrained in day-to-day life, in how we grew up.

I remember the day I learned I was white like the day I became a Christian. A profound, life-altering experience that brought me into a more intimate relationship with God and with the people around me. Like coming to Christ, the experience is also gradual, stemming from years of slow learning and exposure, one relationship at a time. Like coming to Christ, my journey didn't end on the day it began, and I have been learning ever since. Praise God!

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  1. The rest of the story:Life began to change for me freshman year in college--as so many things tend to do during that time. I had the good fortune of being convinced to go on a retreat with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. Unbeknownst to me, the topic for the weekend was racial healing. I probably wouldn't have gone if I had known ("what does that have to do with me?"), but the fact that I attended changed my life. I had sat through any number of icebreakers and "diversity seminars" in my life.But what made the difference for me--hear me POC sisters and brothers--was hearing the personal stories of the black women at that retreat. To hear that racism was alive today and that it PERSONALLY affected people around me. I am so fortunate that there were women there willing to open up and share--not everyone is and they shouldn't have to be. But these ladies had the guts to tell us what they felt, knowing darn well that many of the white women would react by invalidating their experiences: "Surly that situation wasn't REALLY race related--it must have been something you said" "That wasn't a racist statement--your too hypersensitive."One woman told about walking down the hall and seeing white students advertise events to other white students, but not even bothering to give a flier to her. Not even bothering to look at her. She talked about how invisible and insignificant it made her feel. I wondered if it was all in her imagination. And then I realized, even if it is, so what? The fact that she even has to wonder whether she is being treated differently is an incredible burden to bear. I was struggling socially as a college freshman, but there were plenty of people at my school that looked like me and it didn't even have to cross my mind that my loneliness might be a result of active prejudice.We talked about what the burden might mean in the classroom. What if every time I was late it wasn't because I had gotten lost, but because that is just "what those people are like"? Or if I got an answer wrong would I have to wonder if the professor would attribute that to my "underprivileged upbringing"? Maybe, maybe not. But the wondering about the possibility is exhausting to consider and costly to self-esteem.
    These women told me that they didn't want me to be colorblind. They are black and like being black, because they were 'fearfully and wonderfully made' just like that. They explained to me why hurts when I say "I don't see you as black...Your just my friend...I see you as just normal like me" because it implies that black isn't normal and that to be my friend you have to loose or hide your blackness. 
    In hindsight, I am sure I was too belligerent at times. Too pestering with my own ignorance. I am so grateful to the people in my life that have had the patience to help educate me. I know I have hurt them with my words and yet their love and patience was astounding. My eternal thanks and love to you.

  2. Excellent post! Love your thoughts on racism and white mentality. Ever read Tim Wise? I really connect with his stance and advocacy on race issues. Keep writing - I'm reading!

  3. Thank you, Sir! Much appreciated!
    I am indeed familiar with Tim Wise's work! I sometimes wish he would point to more of the POC shoulders on which he stands, but he has a great talent for distilling racial concepts in a way that is accessible to white folk. He's a great resource!Thanks again fro your supportive words!


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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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