I am the whitest of the white girls. I just am. I’m cool with that. One of my black girlfriends told me that when she had moved to the Chicago area back in the 80′s my hometown was one of two places she was told by her mother to avoid ever being in. Before going to high school, the only african american I had ever spoken to was working at a store. But, one of the first people I met at the Catholic high school I attended was Elaine, an African American from Joliet, a small industrial city about 30 minutes from my home. We were both in the honors program, so we had most of our classes together and we hit it off. We shared a wicked sense of humor and spent inordinate amounts of class time writing long notes whose main purpose was to get the other person to laugh out loud while reading it. I can’t believe we never got caught!
We never really talked about it, but there were differences. We were BBFs (Best Buddies Forever), not BFFs. Mostly she ate lunch with the other black kids and it never occurred to me that she would do otherwise. It’s got to be hard spending all day surrounded by people who can’t really “get” you and may not even like you no matter how good or nice or cool or talented you are. I’d want a break too.
Looking back, I realize that I was white-girl clueless in a way that a less tolerant and kind person might have been unwilling to deal with. Like I was always messing with Elaine’s hair. She wore it permed (which as she explained to me, for a black person means getting it straightened, not made curly like white people do). Her hair could hold whatever position you put it in. If I put a lock straight up, it would stay standing straight up. And then Elaine would tell me to knock it off and use her fingers to put it back into a curl. It was amazing. I couldn’t even get my hair to hold a curl from a curling iron! Only now I know that messing with a black woman’s hair is a really, really, really big no-no. (“Never say anything to a black woman about her hair or a white woman about her butt” is generally very good advice.) And I did know that it irritated Elaine, but we were always joking and poking at each other. We were the sort of goodballs that would randomly put a pen mark on any exposed skin as we passed by, so we had plenty of experience being irritated with each other which was what I thought this was. Elaine did finally get me to stop by getting a jerricurl. I have since found Elaine and apologized for messing with her hair. But she’s good as gold and told me it was never a problem. The time I put marker right on her nose? Yeah, that might take some more time.
A couple of years later, I found myself in a very different position with regards to race relations. I went to a small, liberal arts college outside of Chicago which did not have very good race relations. I’m sure there was plenty of blame to go around for that, but all I know is that the quasi-ex-husband (qxh for short) have a particularly funny how-we-met story because of it. You see, I was a resident assistant – a perfectly miserable job that no undergraduate should ever have – in the women’s dorm. We were having a meeting about race relations in the building for reasons I can’t even begin to recall. Part way through the meeting, a group of the black women gave a myriad of examples of ways they were being harrassed by one of the RAs. I kept looking around at the other 5 RAs in shock. I couldn’t believe that one of them would act like that! You think you know someone – and then one of the young women says, “let’s just stop beating around the bush – Rebecca, we’re sick of you harrassing and mistreating us.”
Me? I wanted to laugh. The idea was ridiculous and I was horrified to think that I would be perceived that way. I then realized what was really happening; I had written several of these people up for breaking quiet hours a couple of weeks earlier. These were petty, minor write-ups. And just the week before the write-ups we had held a dorm meeting informing everyone that we were going to be stepping up enforcement of quiet hours – no more warnings were being given. What I didn’t really get until that moment, though, was that I was the only RA who actually enforced these rules on a certain group of African American women living in the dorm. And my experience of being called a racist in front of my boss, the dean of multicultural whatever and everyone I lived with was why.
Of course, if I had just pointed out reality, I would have looked defensive and guilty. So, I made a very big thing of sincerely apologizing if anything I had ever done was experienced as being due to hostility on my part. I was horrified to think I may have ever made someone feel that way because that’s not something anyone should ever have to deal with. Mostly part of the problem was that they just didn’t realize what a bitch I am, but as the women on the floor I resided on would be happy to share with anyone who asks. But it was nothing personal.
I found out later that the director of multicultural whatever wasn’t going to stand up for me, but wasn’t lifting a finger to help my hall director who saw this as her chance to get rid of me. In that environment, such neglect from the multicultural dragon lady was a pretty sure sign that she knew exactly what was going on and knew that I hadn’t done anything. At the end of the day, my life continued. The people who liked me still liked me and the people who didn’t still didn’t. But, everything was about to change.
Back at my college, if you were given to such things, one of the great pleasures of campus life was snagging a spot in the cafeteria with a good view of the entrance. That way you could talk about the 300 lb girl wearing bannanna yellow spandex pants and a t-shirt printed with a picture of Tupac’s head big enough to scare grizzly bears when she walked in. You could keep track of couplings and break-ups by watching who was walking in with or without whom. When you spotted the guy from your “History of Religion” class it was a great prompt to tell the story of how he had tried to argue that Christians aren’t really supposed to try and be like Jesus with the professor. Things like that (aren’t you glad you’re not in school anymore?).
By custom, the large table nearest the entrance was used by many of the black men on campus. (As a general rule, a black 19 year old male from Chicago has a much higher tolerance for conflict than a white 19 year old male from the suburbs. Thus, the endurance of this custom.) These men were doing the same thing everyone else was doing: talking about people coming in. And as luck or fate or Satan would have it, the qxh joined this table when he started attending.
One day when I walked in, the qxh commented favorably on my legs to which the response was that it didn’t matter how nice my legs were, I was a racist lesbian. (I’m still not 100% sure how the lesbian part got tossed in other than that I didn’t date guys on campus. The ones I wanted weren’t interested and the rest were mouth breathers. But apparently for a good number of people lesbian was the best possible explanation for my lack of a love life.) The qxh, who is preternaturally good at reading people, told them that they were dead wrong. They each agree to put up $50 saying that I wouldn’t give him the time of day. Actually, knowing these guys they probably said I wouldn’t sleep with him. But that’s not nice to come right out and say. And in their world, sleeping with someone was pretty much of equal gravity as giving someone the time of day, so it’s all the same, right? The qxh always says in his defense that he never collected on the bet. Which I’m sure is true. None of them had $50 for him to collect on. Damn shame too – we could have had some fun with $300.
At any rate, driven by the challenge and maybe some cash and perhaps by whatever he saw that made him insist that I was not a racist lesbian, the qxh started seeking me out. He didn’t really date white women and even my great legs wouldn’t have gotten him chasing after me if it wasn’t for the push his buddies gave him. But I didn’t know any of that. At first, I tried giving him the cold shoulder, but he’s stubborn if nothing else and persisted. Pretty quickly, we clicked and much to the astonishment of pretty much everyone, became an item. I thought it was odd when my hall director (the boss who wanted to get rid of me under the pretense that I was racist) started asking about my personal life during our weekly meetings. I guess she gave up her hopes of getting me fired once she figured out that I really was dating a black man and we were feeding the campus rumor mill with more astonishing material than they’d had to work with since some guy got thrown out a 3rd floor window by suspected gang members who drove in from the city.
I’ll skip over a lot of messy details and just go straight to, so I married a black man, have a bunch of mixed race children and as such, I have a view of race in American which probably isn’t what one would expect from this very white white girl. I have been priviledged to be able to have intense, deep conversations about race with people who do not share my race. I have had white people confess things to me about their views on race that they normally wouldn’t say out loud. I have seen up close lives which have been shaped by race in ways which are often confusing and conflicting and very, very difficult to move past. I have heard more than my fair share of ignorance from the mouths of people who think that the only race problems we have come from the people complaining. And I have been on the receiving end of just that happening.
Today when I visit my hometown, I always see a few African Americans when I run to the store. I always wish I could just talk with them. Ask what their experience is like living in a town that not that long ago made the short list of places where African Americans still weren’t welcomed. Do they know about that past? Would they care? But I do what most white people do with black strangers who we’re trying to indicate friendliness to and smile and nod as I push my cart past.