Walking in Black Shoes
I’ve been composing this post in my head for three days now. I’m going to write it tonight and I’m going to fumble it a bit. I write this humbly because I know no other way to discuss issues that rock us at our cores. Be patient with me. Be kind and accepting, okay?
As you probably know, I began my new job this week. It’s a brand new office, so my coworker and I spent the first day unpacking boxes, moving furniture, setting up the computers, etc. Our boss is still out of town training so for now it’s just me and Coworker. Once Boss is back in town, our office will be complete… something I was not expecting. Just the three of us will occupy this particular office. I think it will be nice, we’ll get to know one another, hopefully become somewhat close. Just three women working for The People.
But I’m insanely nervous.
I’m the only white girl.
This is new to me. I grew up in what was nearly an all-white neighborhood. I had one black friend in the third grade but she moved. My high school was predominantly white, but there was a black family that did theatre and I got to know them a bit. I remember the oldest sister was so outraged when she was typecast as Tituba (the slave) in The Crucible my sophomore year but I didn’t quite understand it. My private Catholic college was even whiter than my high school. I knew a couple of the black girls and they joked about being the token black girls. And my previous job included mostly white Jewish people… zero racial minorities.
In other words, I grew up in a white bubble.
I discussed racial inequality in countless classes. I read so many articles about the race issue in the United States. I’ve talked civil rights until I was blue in the face. But, truth be told, I’ve never practiced what I’ve preached. I’ve never had to. I’ve always preached social change to a white choir. I’ve never been in a truly racially diverse environment.
What bothers me so much while writing this post is how this is even an issue to me. Why does it matter my two coworkers have black skin and I have white skin? Why do I feel compelled to write this? Why am I so nervous?
I understand I come from a privileged background. I had the opportunity to go to a private college. I studied abroad in Europe. I toured the United States with my choir. I’m getting married this summer. I live in a nice apartment. My dad bought my car. I KNOW I’m privileged… but the color of my skin has never seemed more obvious to me as it has in the past few days. I’m feeling the guilt of white privilege. I carry an invisible knapsack of privilege.
These women come from such different backgrounds than what I’m used to. All my (white) friends went to high school, spent four or five years in college, got a job, looked for love… more or less in that order. But that’s my white bubble. These women have lived their lives out of order, without the cloak of white privilege, they have struggled to pay for their education. They are Democrats for different reasons than I am. While I worry about climate change, Coworker worries about AIDS disproportinately affecting black people. While all my world views are rooted in theory and academia, Coworker’s views are rooted in experience and her strong faith.
I’m afraid I don’t fit in, afraid I’ll say something ignorant, afraid that I’ll come off as callous or uppity or the worst– racist.
Is it racist of me to feel like I’m out of my comfort zone? Is it racist of me to acknowledge that this experience will be a challenge? Is it racist of me to admit I’ve never had collard greens and I don’t understand the texture of black girls’ hair? Is it racist of me to mention that I do, in fact, love Will Smith and have quite the girl crush on Beyonce?
This is what I hope for in an Obama presidency: that we’ll see beyond race and actually experience one another as human beings, without feeling self-conscious about our skin color, without hiding behind our race and our ignorance, that we’ll admit honestly and humbly that we don’t understand the nuances of another’s race, but that we’re whole-heartedly willing to try, that we’ll walk a mile in black shoes or Hispanic shoes or Asian shoes or white shoes or Middle Eastern shoes and we’ll do our DAMNEDEST to comprehend the vast spectrum of experiences that comprise a person’s life. And one day, I hope my daughter or son isn’t so painfully aware of her or his skin color when she walks into an office where she is the minority.
I will go to my office to learn, not just how to do my job, but how to live.