Reflections on Being White
When I was in high school, my friend Mellie and I would often spend our afternoons at the local Dairy Queen eating blizzards…those delicious, dense ice cream treats that only high schoolers playing sports have the metabolism to handle on a daily basis. One day, we must have gone earlier than usual, and we saw the public high school nearby letting out for the day. As I watched the kids streaming out, I felt my usual jealousy of public school students — I found my small, private school both socially and academically stifling — but something else, new, struck me: all of the white kids were turning left, walking home to the nice neighborhood nearby, while all of the black kids were turning right, heading to the more dilapidated neighborhoods just a few blocks in the other direction.
It wasn’t new to me that my hometown was the definition of de facto segregation: this image was just especially striking and still sticks with me 20 years later. Another, earlier memory also sticks out. I was twelve years old, and my mother was getting her hair cut. I wanted some new nail polish, so I walked next door to a Sally’s make-up supply store. Walking in, I was quickly aware that everyone was looking at me: this was not a store where they were used to seeing white people, much less young white girls on their own. In Norfolk, Virginia, a hodgepodge city that was once at the heart of the Confederacy and now hosts the largest Navy base in the U.S., de facto segregation is not by neighborhood only but also by street, by store: people walking side-by-side, and yet living completely separate lives.
I can see, looking back, how that experience at Sally’s, combined with similar experiences like it over a lifetime, could make me bitter, or at least, complacent. These experiences help me to understand (not agree with, but have some understanding of) why so many white Americans can say in all honesty that they are not racist, and yet in the same breath admit that they are not comfortable in certain places — those places that just happen to be filled with mostly black people.
I didn’t quite react that way. I was a naturally curious child, and my expensive education drilled me with critical thinking so extensively that I cannot read one news article without questioning every sentence, every word. I knew that there was something wrong with the fact that there were only 3 black kids in my high school class of 72 (all on scholarship) and that the more diverse student body of the local public school walked home in directions defined by color. I knew that it was complicated — a problem resulting from history, government policies, media, culture — a problem that I couldn’t fully understand, but that I knew did not have a simple answer or simple solution.
So what did I do? I left. Never feeling at home in a city that was 50% black and 50% white, nevermind a city defined by shopping malls, mega highways, and gas prices, I charted a slow path out, eventually living in New York, Boston, D.C., and ending up in a international career surrounded by diversity, airports, and car-sharing services.
I’m undoubtedly happier and more comfortable in this new life, new community that I’ve created for myself. And yet, as I watch the news from Ferguson, Baltimore, Anacostia, etc, etc. I have this nagging feeling that I just, well, left. Abandoned ship. Found my own peace while leaving the place I left behind the same.
There have not yet been news stories coming out of Norfolk about police discrimination, but I am certain that if I went back to that Dairy Queen and watched the students walking home, they would still be walking home in different directions.
In my search for diversity, I’ve separated myself even farther from the reality of the situation. Would it be any different if I had stayed? Would I be able to make even a small difference in the attitudes of my white neighbors? Or would I be even more complacent, sitting in a nice house or nice cafe with friends, laughing at a joke about a neighborhood that we would never set foot in, telling myself that I too, am obviously not racist?