The First Time I Was Racist

Tasha Graff
Jul 20, 2016 · 6 min read

I can’t remember the first time someone told me I was white. The truth is, it probably never happened. I assume the same is true for Rep. Steve King, but perhaps that’s a generous assumption. One of the privileges of whiteness — one of the many privileges — is its normalcy, its unotheredness, its invisibility, its ability to be both unremarkable and remarkably powerful at the same time.

So when I see black and Muslim friends and activists have to prove, over and over again, their belief in nonviolent action and protest in the wake of police brutality and terrorism, it shines a spotlight on the safety of my skin. When I see the leaders of Black Lives Matter repeatedly and publicly having to denounce violence, despite never promoting or condoning any sort of violence in their struggle to end violence, I am reminded of my privilege as a white person and the unconscionable place our country finds itself in, where people of color are still treated and labeled as a “subgroup.” (From the Latin sub, meaning, under.)

I’ve taught hundreds of white teenage boys over the last decade and not once — to my knowledge — have any of them ever had to publicly denounce school shooters even though most are both white and male. And no one at the RNC is asking, “Why are our white boys killing children?” And not one talking head is calling on the white male community to denounce shootings. And no one on Fox News is asking about “white on white crime” or “child on child” crime. And I have not heard Mr. Trump or Rep. King questioning whether or not we should allow more white boys in our country. Nor has anyone at the RNC cited the statistic that toddlers kill more people in the US than terrorists. But Trump and his ilk are always making blanket statements about people of color, and it makes me think back to the first conversation I remember having about race.

A few times each year in my childhood, my family would drive from our rural home in New Hampshire, one of the whitest states in the country, to Harlem to visit my grandmother. My earliest memory of feeling shame happened on one of these trips and it was a shame so deeply felt that I have never written or told this story before.

I was sitting in the back of the family car with my brother. My dad, who had left New York City for a job in the mountains a decade before I was born, had just exited the Henry Hudson Parkway for 125th Street. His posture always changed when we arrived in his childhood home. His shoulders relaxed and he removed one hand from the wheel. We stopped at the end of the exit ramp at what later would become the location of a Fairway to make a left turn onto Martin Luther King Boulevard. I was probably five or six years old. I started counting out loud, “One, two, three, four…” We made the turn, heading toward Broadway. I got to sixteen before one of my parents or my brother — I can’t remember who — said, “What are you counting?” And I said, “I’m counting the number of black people I see.” This was met with momentary silence and then an immediate, stern lecture followed by a conversation that marked my life.

Over a quarter-century has passed since this moment and I cannot remember the precise details of the conversation that followed, who said what and when. What I do remember is a lesson in humanity, one that involved my personal hero at the time, LeVar Burton of Reading Rainbow, but more importantly leaders in fights for equality and social justice I had only vague or no knowledge of: Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Susan B Anthony, Malcom X, Gandhi, Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman. I was not too young to learn about social justice; it was a needed lesson. It was a conversation I carried in my heart and my head through elementary, middle and high school, through college and into the classrooms where I have taught English for the last decade. Though I can’t remember all the words of the initial conversation, I remember the feeling. I remember realizing I had made a grave mistake in othering strangers that were, first and foremost, human and I remember feeling deeply ashamed that I had not lived up to the tenets of kindness my parents expected. I remember wanting desperately to make up for it and to change. That’s the thing about children, right? Empathy can easily become instinct when given the opportunity. Thus began my education — and my brother’s and parents’ education — about the need to talk about race, read about race and make an effort to integrate diversity into my childhood, not only through books, Sesame Street and theoretical conversations, but also through experiences, friendships, relationships and human interactions. What I did not know at the time was that this conversation — started that November day when I looked through my young blue eyes so accustomed to seeing skin that looked exactly like mine and started counting difference like a spectacle— would never end.

I think a lot about my education as a white woman who grew up in America. As an adult and a teacher, I talk about race in the classroom. I want my students to think critically about the books they read. Study after study has shown that fiction can open the doors of empathy. It is my job to create an open and honest dialogue about race and racism, acknowledge how my whiteness has impacted my entire life, teach how race as a social construct affects our nation, and to create a safe place where students of all races and backgrounds participate in our discussions. It’s not easy. We don’t always get it right. But we keep talking and sometimes it feels like we’re making progress. And then I see that Philando Castile was pulled over 49 times in 13 years. Guess how many times I’ve been pulled over in the last 13 years? (Answer: once, in 2009, when a police officer noticed my inspection sticker had expired; she gave me a verbal warning.) I see over and over and over again that my skin is a passport I did not apply for nor pay to renew. I see white elected officials and the white Republican nominee for president making racist statements on stage, again and again, and I wonder, “When were you first racist? Why are you still?”

I know we can be better. I know we can confront racism. I know we can acknowledge and be ashamed of parts of our history and still work for the betterment of our society. This is the hope of a country like America. Sometimes, while listening to the speeches at the RNC, that hope is hard to find. But I know we can and must come together as a nation and not only declare that black lives matter, but also act and change so that our nation becomes a place where that motto becomes irrelevant because of its truth.

Schools are microcosms of our country. As a teacher, I have to ask my students to question what it means to be American and who is still allowed to use the Statue of Liberty’s torch as the beacon and hope it was designed to symbolize. I have to ask my administrators to examine how students and families of color are treated by the system and to change when uncomfortable truths emerge. That is my duty. That is my opportunity. And mine is but one small voice added to a chorus I hope will rise up and shake our nation from coast to coast and border to border, over the discord of violence and the dissonance of guns and the racist, xenophobic drum-beat of Trump and his cronies. Over it all, we must shout and we must sing and we must cry and we must sound our voices together: Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter.

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