Op-Ed
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Op-Ed

Perspective: southern white gal writes about black culture.

Being one of only two white girls on the school bus (my sister being the other), I was heavily influenced by black culture as a kid. The commute to and from school can be thirty minutes to an hour when you live in the boondocks. We were some of the first to board in the morning and last to be dropped off in the afternoon. In that time on that bus I experienced unadulterated black culture from tiny humans that had spent the past five or so years in their family units, just as I had.

Untethered from rules and restraints with but a single man in charge of an onslaught of rambunctious children. His name was Mr. Ben, our bus driver. He was our friend Kenesha’s uncle and the three of us generally sat directly behind him. He would give Kenesha a Grapico and Snickers bar everyday after school. She more than graciously shared and I can’t tell you how many times I felt famished and parched in anticipation for that fizzy drink and chewy, nougaty, caramelly, crunchy, peanut buttery goodness.

I mean of course we knew we were white. Of course we knew that meant we were different. There was a sense of “I wonder if you guys do stuff differently.” We were kids, you honestly wonder that about every family as a kid. In fact, there were many rich kids I would later meet (black, white, brown, red and yellow…sadly, no purple people) who did things in a much different way than the families I was raised around. Still, the black culture in deep rural southeastern Georgia is distinct and familiar to me.

I never went to Kenesha’s house but one day she came over to our trailer and we had a couple of other girls over. The whole set of us danced to N*Sync in concert on the 25-inch television in our computer room. I don’t think I ever saw Kenesha angry but I can still to this day recall her laugh (which I only just realized). She is part of what shaped my perspective on black culture. Hospitality is always a virtue but when you are a child it shows just how truly engrained this character trait was embedded into her nature. She did not have to let the two quiet white girls sit with her. She certainly did not have to share her treasures. It’s like she could tell we needed that olive branch extended to us. Maybe Mr. Ben with his trucker hat and plaid button ups encouraged Kenesha to reach out. Whatever the case may be, the amount of love in our childhood friendship with her warms my heart just thinking about it.

I have no scientific data here, but I see it far less in any other racial community. A behavior that could be likened to that salute motorcyclists do with one another on the road, or a tip of the hat among cowboys. They acknowledge each other with a full “Hey, how y’all doin.’” Stated in such a way that a response is not required but is invited; a little check-in. Now it’s a subtle behavior but years in customer service and the hospitality industry lead me to a pretty good sample of at least a particular sort of supplement-taking variety of human.

Southern black culture also has this huge running joke of how everyone is “cousins” but they really don’t mean it as blood relatives. Or maybe they did, I am not trying to speak for the folks I’ve experienced in my life but to me it was a metaphor. It was used to defend behavior, or ward off insults launched at a friend, or it could simply be an expression of loyalty. Essentially saying “that’s one of my best friends” or really “that is family”.

Kenesha had hacked this instinct we all have of group identification much earlier than I’d imagine most people on the planet do. She extended that greeting to my sister and me. To her I will forever be grateful for exemplifying black culture with her grace. Because of her, southern black culture means having a sense of belonging and kinship. It is not divisive and to be very honest it doesn’t even feel really all that foreign to me.

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