Reimagining conversations on race in America
I’ve lived my life like everyone else: I’ve lived in different places, I’ve traveled, I’ve met a lot of people. My experience has always been white. I am white. Wherever I go, there I am. I can’t have an experience as anything other than white.
My mother, now 80, had a black housekeeper who raised her. She will tell you, even now, that she felt this housekeeper might have loved her more than her biological mother. This relationship did not shield my mother from racial bias. She learned to separate her personal experience from the cultural and societal experience around her. In her eyes, Nettie loved her and Nettie was black, but not in the same way others were black.
We, as white people, can bestow a special status upon black folks, if we see them as ‘good’ enough. That is our belief. That is our privilege. Because we can decide; we’ve always been able to decide.
The history of whiteness is one of our deciding, long ago. Historically, we decided we were white; in order to elevate ourselves, in order to enslave others, in order to construct a higher moral ground. We, as white people, separated ourselves: it wasn’t God, or the natural order, or some kind of genial meritocracy. We made the decision then conveniently forgot it had been made, accepting it simply as ‘the way of things’.
When Deonna Kelli Sayed and I came up with the idea for a Story Booth on Whiteness, we had heated arguments between us on how political and how expansive the questions should be. In the end, though, we both deeply believe that stories, and people, are more interesting and meaningful than politics and ideologies.
We eventually decided to provide only one context, the quote from James Baldwin below, which is, of course, political in its own way. And to ask one initial question.
The first two sessions filled within two days so we added another, ending with 18 interviews. This is, by no means, a scientific or representative group. The participants self-selected by being willing to come downtown to talk with us for a short period of time. They were people who, for one reason or another, wanted to talk. We list their ages because it’s important to know the generation involved and how recent some of these experiences are.
So, we began with the question: When was the first time you realized you were white?
Jenny Canipe, 37, is a public school teacher with the Guilford County Schools. She grew up in Bessemer City, N.C. She doesn’t remember when she realized she was white but she knew when she realized others weren’t.
“My grandmother was talking about these people and she called them coloreds and so, of course, in my young mind I’m trying to figure out what a colored person looks like.
“Because, as a little kid, you just sort of see the world around you and you assume you know what things mean. I’d seen African American people, I’d seen Hispanic people, and I knew their color wasn’t the same as mine, but I didn’t really know what a colored person was.
“I was then looking around for someone who was purple, green, you know, some color of the rainbow,” Jenny chuckles, “and I literally spent years looking for that before I finally figured it out.”
My own bias was nurtured quietly, obliquely. It was almost never evident. When it would occasionally become evident, in a comment from a friend or stranger, in a public setting, I knew enough and felt enough to say something about it.
But not when I was younger; then, racist comments simply confused me. They seemed to be a part of an adult world I didn’t understand because, obviously, adults knew more than I did. Mostly, though, the privilege around me was nearly invisible. To me. Not to others. It was apparent to those who were not white. Just not to me.
Whiteness—what it is and what it isn’t, what it means and doesn’t—is just beginning to enter the public awareness. However, when I was growing up in the South in the 1960s and 1970s, the questions were there but there was no context within which to ask them. Why were the black people we knew alright, but the ones we didn’t, the faceless ones, were not? Why was it okay to talk to this person and not that one, to listen to this kind of music but not that, to go to this part of town but not another?
Adrienne McKinney, 51, is a Certified Public Accountant who has lived in Greensboro for many years. She began thinking about whiteness when issues of police action against blacks came up earlier this year on a talk radio program she enjoys. Listening to a black woman on the air, she realized the issue was systemic in a way that hadn’t been clear to her before.
“I went to a Catholic School,” Adrienne explains. “It was small and probably a third of the class was black. It never occurred to me that there was any difference, other than how people looked.
“I was at a slumber party one of my friends had, seventh grade or so. We were playing out in the yard and I heard this voice behind me saying, Who’s that white girl? What’s she doing here?
“It didn’t dawn on me until that moment that I was the only white girl at the slumber party. I was the only white girl visible on the street.
“Some of my closest friends were black. Still, I grew up not appreciating that there was a difference in perspective and that what I saw, and my reality outside that classroom, was not the same as theirs.”
“The first time I actually picked up on it was in fifth grade.” Shannon Jones is 28, a bookseller and mother of a one year old. “I was home and my parents were asking my brother and me how school was, what had happened during the day. I was complaining about a boy in my class having done something, I don’t remember what.
“And, not the first question, but one of the first questions they asked was whether the boy was black or white. There was no righteous indignation but I felt very uncomfortable at being asked and not really knowing why.”
Kari Thatcher is a Public Health Researcher. She’s 37. She grew up in California and has been living in the Greensboro area for a few years. Growing up, the non-whites around her were predominantly Hispanic.
“I don’t remember an incident where I realized my whiteness as much as one when I realized my own racial bias. I was 10 or 12, in junior high. I don’t know whether I cut in line in front of a black girl in my class, or what. I did something that in effect indicated she was invisible to me. And she was upset by that. When I turned to defend myself, I said that I didn’t see her because she was so dark.”
When I was growing up in the 60’s and 70’s there were so many unspoken taboos around black culture as to make it instantly appealing. It was impossibly alluring; sensual, sweaty, and ripe with forbidden promise. It was positioned by white culture as its opposite and that made it mysterious, even magical.
One unspoken side effect of racism and white privilege is to romanticize blackness to some of us white folks, as if it were somehow more real and honest. This is a bullshit perspective, much like the romanticization of the poor or the disabled. It allows us to believe we care and can see value; it’s a sideways rationalization for demeaning others by ‘appreciating their specialness’ and the nobility of their suffering. This romanticizing means we believe black people have secrets we don’t know.
And this belief that other people know something we don’t and know it easily, intrinsically and absolutely, whether true or not, leads to fear and rage. But those are things operating at a larger level, at the level of ‘otherness’.
“Where I grew up there was the white neighborhood and the black neighborhood and in between was a fire station. It was like the fire station was the dividing line.”
Mike Gaspeny is 72 years old. He grew up in Norfolk, Virginia as part of the ‘middle middle class’ in the 1950s. He moved to Greensboro to teach at High Point University and Bennett College. Norfolk was segregated at the time he grew up and, at the time of his story, the public schools had been closed by the Governor as part of a massive resistance to integration.
“There was a sense of parallel racial history taking place. The twain only met in one way.”
“There were two stores in the area that were confectionaries,” Mike explains. One was called Honest Johnny Farris’s and it was the white confectionery. The Blue Room was the black one. They were within a half block of each other.
“No African American ever entered Honest Johnny Farris’s. There were no signs. It was just by custom, and might as well have been by law too: there wouldn’t be any black customers at Honest Johnny Farris’s.”
“My strong awareness of being white came from going in the Blue Room. The place was always very mystifying to me, it was a turquoise kind-of-shack and I started to venture in there to shoot pool. I was about 12 or 13. As far as I know, I was the only white kid who went there.”
The Blue Room had a jukebox, a refrigerator for sodas and a wood stove. There was a guy who ruled the place, a teenager named Mack Sweeney. Mike played pool with Mack for money, a quarter a game. He lost his allowance for an entire winter to Mack Sweeney.
“I don’t think we talked about anything but the game in front of us. The stereotypes of black people came from popular culture. Amos and Andy was on television and it was a show that all white people watched. It was incredibly popular. In my family, everyone was crowded around the TV to see it. I knew, if I was in there, it wasn’t going to be right to say, Did you see Amos and Andy last night? I didn’t know what to talk about.”
The quarters would go on the table and Mike would lose, over and over. He never won a game yet kept coming back. Sometimes, he says, Mack would attempt to throw a game his way, but he was such a bad player he couldn’t even win then. “It was pathetic.”
“I was dumbstruck when I was in there. To be in the Blue Room and to hear James Brown or Clyde McFadden on the jukebox and to have a pool cue in my hand was a thrill. And yet, at the same time, it was very scary too.”
Andrew Saulters laughs; it’s part amusement, part confusion. Andrew is 33. He’s an editor at Unicorn Press, an independent publisher of poetry, in Greensboro. He grew up in Phenix City, Alabama and he’s been in Greensboro for years.
“In Alabama, there was a black part of town. I would go there—and this is like, totally white—I’d go there as an amateur photographer to take pictures because it was distinct from my part of town.
“My parents always let me bicycle everywhere.
“But, my father came across me one summer when I was maybe 16 in that part of town. He pulled me over into a parking lot and said, Let’s talk about this when we get home. And that resulted in me being grounded for a month.”
I asked Andrew if he and his parents ever talked about this incident and race: “Oh God, no. We didn’t talk about it. I have no idea what that was. I don’t know what the fear was.”
“I have an aunt who was married to a black man and I have biracial cousins,” Shelby Smith begins. She’s a 22 year old grant writer working in Public Health. She grew up outside Washington, D.C. and has lived in Guilford County for years. “I don’t remember them ever being treated differently, or anything being said.”
“But, there was an incident where he was actually abusive to my aunt and my Mom said, Well, that’s sort of a part of African American culture. It seemed strange to me at the time that she would say that.”
Jenny Canipe was taken to KKK rallies as a child, up until her seventh or eighth grade year. She’d always assumed she lived in a town where only white people lived, based upon who she saw at elementary school, her church and in public places. It wasn’t until almost high school that there were black kids in her classes. KKK rallies, for her family, were just a typical sort of summer, family outing.
“By the time I was in junior high I was making friends with some of the black kids at school and I was being picked on and bullied and beat up and cornered by white kids for wanting to shoot ball with some of the black girls.
“I grew up in a very evangelical, religious family. I think, more than anything, it was an issue of feeling sort of superior, smarter. You know, the age-old idea that black people’s brains weren’t as big, they couldn’t learn.
“No one would ever say God made white people better but it was sort of an understood thing. It was just this base, common knowledge you accepted as someone who grew up in Bessemer City, North Carolina.
“So this juxtaposition of—I don’t want to say me not knowing any better, but me frankly not caring—being friends with whoever was nice and fun to be around, next to a family that wanted to take me to KKK parades and downtown meetings. That was like two rocks rubbing against each other, it didn’t make any sense to me.”
Black boys talking with white girls is a particularly touchy subject, whether you grew up 10 or 20 years ago.
Shannon Jones remembers: “I was 14 or 15 and I had an issue with a boy in my class borderline sexually harassing me. He was black, and when my Dad found out who it was, he was extremely angry. I distinctly remember the shift when he found out. It sort of went from Oh, this is inappropriate to an irrational anger. He was going to call to threaten this boy at his house. I knew there was something different and I knew it was because he was black. It was a really unsettling moment, because I was really mad at the boy for what he’d done but I also felt like Whoa, let’s just simmer down here, almost defending the boy.”
“I felt singled out for being a white person who was friends with black people,” says Jenny Canipe. “Absolutely.”
“I was at Kingsway Gas Station, pumping gas in my mom’s car. I was in high school by this time. My friend Maurice pulled up, he was putting gas in his parent’s car and we were shooting the breeze. Maurice was in band with me, we were good friends.
“When I went in to pay, there was a white woman in there with some of her friends and they literally pulled a knife on me for having the nerve to have a conversation with a black man outside. That kind of thing happened a lot. I was targeted throughout high school by groups of whites—girls, mostly—for being friends with black people, especially black boys.
“[Later] that same friend, Maurice, was driving down the road I grew up on, saw me outside, and he pulled into my grandfather’s driveway to say hi. I was like, Oh cool, my buddy’s stopping by. After he left, my grandfather came out and told me that if he ever came to his property again, he’d shoot him. And he meant it. So I told Maurice not to ever stop by, ever again.”
Ashlee Furr is 45. She’s a small business consultant who grew up wealthy in Atlanta. She attended private schools exclusively and there were always a couple of black kids in her school but they mostly stayed to themselves. Ashley and her husband moved to Greensboro partly because they wanted a more diverse community than Atlanta for their children.
“We had a sweet lady who took care of us, while my mom was working or running errands, and we called her Hattie. I was six and someone called and asked, Can you come over and play? I said, Hold on, let me ask my maid. She heard me say that and she turned around real quick. She said, I am not your maid, I’m your housekeeper.
“I didn’t understand what the difference was. All I knew was that she cooked and cleaned and took care of me. And that she left at 5 o’clock. It really hurt my feelings. I said, Mom, you’ve always said, the maid’s coming.
“Maybe, we never used the word maid when she was around. I guess we never used Hattie too much, either.”
At the level of our personal experience, for most white people, there are black folks who are ‘just like us’ and there are those outside our realm of experience. One we can accept, the other we fear. Nettie was like us, or so my Mom believed or had to believe, when she was young.
As white folks, we all have our Nettie’s and we get to choose who they are. That is our privilege. We like the ones who prove themselves to us in some way; by their care and concern, by their intelligence, by their use. We sort the wheat from the chaff: that’s our job as white people, we believe. We get to make those judgments.
My mother’s history could be quite different from Nettie’s history. My mother, each of us, could have one narrative while others might have a parallel or conflicting narrative. Unfortunately, Nettie isn’t around to tell her part of the story. A lot of people aren’t around to tell their stories.
These parallel histories tend to meet only in conflict because we don’t recognize the existence of the other history; we don’t recognize that our history is white history and not the history of all. We are often so sure we understand where we stand with blackness, where we fall on the spectrum, that we don’t readily consider what being white means. Perhaps, one way to begin is to tell our stories and to listen to others.
“America became white—the people who, as they claim, ‘settled’ the country became white—because of the necessity of denying the Black presence, and justifying the Black subjugation.”
Steve Mitchell’s short story collection, The Naming of Ghosts, is published by Press 53. He’s co-owner of Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, NC. Find him at: www.thisisstevemitchell.com