I first published this article on August 7 2014. I am publishing it again because I want to invite comments, especially from people of color. Comments about your perspective on my story, any thoughts it may bring to mind, any advice on how I can use this experience to be a better person. It is a personal goal of mine to renounce my white privilege. And I have a question. To set up the question, let me share this: When I was working, I had a co-worker who became a very good friend. She is a woman of color. We often ate lunch together. We prayed together. We visited each other’s church. The day came when we had a couple of new co-workers, both people of color. A man in my department, and a woman who was a temp in another department. On another day, I asked my friend if she wanted to go out with me for lunch. She said she was going with the man and the temp. I asked if they minded if I joined them. They moved off and talked about it, and then told me they didn’t mind if I joined them. The entire time we were at the restaurant, there was a feeling of tension. None of us were being ourselves. Even my friend seemed to put distance between the two of us. I tried to make conversation but it just stayed trivial. I felt out of place, and that they didn’t really want me there. I felt that they felt they could not be themselves around me. So here is my question, what could I have done differently to put us all at ease with one another? Please think about this question as you read the rest of this article, and then leave a comment or 2 or 3. I really appreciate and value the feedback!
I was born in the South in 1959. I am a white middle-aged female, and grew up in a middle class family. For most of my childhood all my friends were white. My grandma and my aunt used the “N” word regularly. I was taught, however, not to use that word.
Even though my surroundings consisted of mostly white people, I was taught that all people were equal in the eyes of God. That whatever color someone’s skin was, they were still a child of God. I accepted this, I believed it.
In grade school, my favorite books to read were biographies of famous African-American people. Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and many others. I felt a movement in my heart for their cause. I realized it was OUR cause. I felt shame that my country had ever used people as slaves. Even though that supposedly wasn’t happening anymore, I could not get over the fact that it HAD happened. I couldn’t get over the fact that it took a war to end it, and even then the discrimination did not end. Really, it still hasn’t. We all know this.
As I entered my teen years we were living in California. I was exposed to some people of color. Most were in my church, and I loved them. They loved me. We were family because we belonged to the same church and believed the same things. Later we moved to Oregon, and once again everyone at church was white. The only African-Americans I came into contact with were at my high school, there was some gang activity going on from all sides and I just tried to avoid it. It wasn’t their color I told myself, it was the violence and the way they treated me as a young woman.
Once I became an adult and entered the work force, I had the opportunity to work with many different people. I loved getting to know them, especially if they had grown up in another country. I wanted to know all about their cultures. I welcomed the friendships. I took steps to help them move up into better positions wherever I was working if that was what they wanted.
Now, before you start to think that I am patting myself on the back, let me borrow a phrase from the late Paul Harvey, and “tell you the rest of the story”.
In 1981 I moved back to Texas. In 1989 I took a position at a family owned company in a town that had a very mixed population. At this company on the day I started, there was only ONE African-American employee. She was the clerk in the department I was assigned to. Most of the factory workers were Hispanic, and there were a few women among them.
Sandra and I became good friends, we helped each other out at work and we lunched together often. I got to know about her kids, she was raising three boys on her own. She got to know about my child, I was raising one boy on my own. We talked about all sorts of things. We celebrated our birthdays together because the dates were within a few days of each other and because we were friends. I met her mother, I met her best friend, I met her boys, her first grandchild. I went to two funerals with her. She met my parents, my son. She came to my church when I was ordained.
All this time, I thought I was a good liberal open-minded non-judgmental Christian and Citizen.
One day, I went to a new salon for a haircut and style. This white woman who styled my hair made a complete mess of it. I tried for a few days to handle it but I became so frustrated and pretty angry. I have always been particular about how my hair looked. I was so angry I jumped in the car and started driving around looking for another salon where I might get someone to “fix” the mess on my head. It was late on a Saturday afternoon and a lot of the places I drove by were closed. But there was one place that I found open. It was called “It’s Your Hair”. Sounded pretty good to me.
I parked and walked over to the doors. When I stepped in, all I saw in there were black faces! I realized I has just walked into a salon that catered to African-American clients. I just stood there, I didn’t know what to do. I was afraid that if I just turned around and left, they would think I was a racist white woman. ME? Racist? That wasn’t how I was raised or how I knew myself! Why was I feeling this way? Really??
All these thoughts flew through my mind in a matter of seconds. They were all staring at me, not saying anything either. I really did feel out of place. Then one woman stepped up and asked if she could help me. I snapped out of my stupor and instantly decided that the thing to do was to give it a shot.
I asked her if there was someone there who could “fix this mess on my head”. She gave me a big sweet smile and said of course they could do that for me. She led me over to a chair where a young man stood waiting and she turned me over to him. We talked politely while he worked on me and I was surprised that he did a very good job. Not that I didn’t think he was qualified, I realized. But I was surprised that I had wondered if a black person would be trained on how to style “white” hair! OMG! Maybe I am a racist I thought!
I maintained my composure, until I got my debit card out. Then the woman told me they accepted cash only. I wondered if she said that because I was white. And for that I felt ashamed. Of course it wasn’t that, any business owner can decide how they want to be paid.
I explained that I would have to go across the street to the ATM and bring back the cash. I promised profusely that I would be right back. She just smiled at me again and said ok.
Ten minutes later I was back with the cash and a good tip. The woman thanked me and said that the others didn’t think I was coming back. My My, maybe I wasn’t the only one with hidden feelings of racism!?
I didn’t have to think about this again until 9-11. By then I had made some Persian friends. The first thing I did was call them and make sure they were ok. Not that they were in New York or any of the other places that were hit, I was concerned that they might be suffering due to their ethnicity.
But that day back when I needed my hair restyled, I learned something. You can say you are not a racist, you can make friends with all kinds of people, you can go out of your way to help a person no matter what color they are or what religion they practice. But you don’t really really know what you are until you are put to the test, face to face with making a choice between your own comfort and the dignity of someone else.
Someone said, ( I don’t remember who, but if you know please tell me) “An unexamined belief is not worth believing, and an unexamined life is not worth living”.
Let us all take a good look at ourselves on the inside where no one else can see. Let us all ask the hard questions we would rather not ask of ourselves.
Better yet, go out and put yourself in a difficult situation and see how you react. You will learn something, I promise.