Running from my White-ness

This has been a difficult few weeks for many, triumphant for some and confusing for me.  Maybe it’s my generation, maybe it’s my liberal insanity or maybe it’s just my personal need to be everyone’s mother (I got an A+ in co-dependency). Regardless, my feathers get very ruffled any time I perceive something as unfair or unjust. It stirs me up to the point of saying and writing things that may surprise people, even offend or anger them. I have asked myself if the need to crusade for people of color may be just as biased in its obsession as the most racist among us have need to oppress.  The answer came when my husband basically called me out on it with his simple words, “It’s not about black or white it’s about justice and equality.”

Me and my husband Mike
Me and my husband Mike

Now, I know that at first thought the statement may seem strange, but it made perfect sense once I applied my hubby’s logic. Equality and freedom are straight forward. We are either free and equal or we are not.  As Americans we believe in equal opportunity and freedom, after all it is what we are built on. If everything is measured by this standard we all know the truth. The battle for justice in this country boils down to education versus ignorance, fact versus fiction and responsible lawmaking.

The Trayvon Martin tragedy followed by the decision in the George Zimmerman trial struck me deep in the heart.  I was overcome with empathy for the family and disappointment in the system.  Once again I was moved to crusade for the underdog, stand on my soapbox and shout “foul!” to the world. What I realized in the 24 hours following the Zimmerman jury decision is that my emotional reaction to injustice for people of color, those who are gay, those with disabilities or the poor and needy seems to be greatly out of proportion with my concern for those who are white, wealthy or otherwise in a place of privilege.

This revelation made me stop and look at myself in a new way. What makes me feel that I need to be a voice for anyone? How is my vile berating of those who oppress going to make any difference? Who do I think I am? The most important question I asked myself was why do you feel guilty for being white and happy?  Chris Matthews had two men on his show Hardball that expressed one possible reason.  The interview with Val Nicholas and Michael Steele (via Huffington Post) discussed the experiences of young Black males in this country who must live by a different set of rules and guidelines to stay safe in our society.

My three daughters are very different in every way, but they also have had a common thread during their childhood. Each of them without prompting by anyone had a best or close friend in school who was Black. Now this may not seem like an odd occurrence in California, but the small city we live in has a Black population of 0.9%. Thinking this over I realized that my sister and I had possibly influenced and encouraged our children with comments about equality, etc. over the years. This should be a good thing, right? But why does there need to be a reason for my children’s open acceptance of any friend that resonates with them? Isn’t this what I was trying to teach them?

My sister’s two children are half Puerto Rican, and have had their share of social difficulties living here because of their dark skin and curly hair. There have been many occasions of racial slurs, comments and assumptions which probably contributed to our attitude which was inadvertently imparted onto our children.  My sister herself endured comments about her choice of friends and dates.  After dating a Black man for a year or so she was referred to in our town as “that chick who dates Black guys.”  Our children became crusaders for the underdogs just like us, and suffered a few times for it because of our small minded community.

My niece Amanda and nephew Miguel
My niece Amanda and nephew Miguel, around 1993

This crusader persona manifested in a big way when one of my daughters did not want to participate in a class project on family heritage because she was ashamed of that heritage. Most of her friends were Hispanic or mixed race and she felt embarrassed because of the history she represented. Considering the fact that she has very light skin and blonde hair, I think they already knew her racial background, but she still tried to be something else.  I remember her even saying to me, “I am ashamed to be white.”  This disturbed me because I wanted her to be proud of her ancestors, but I understood where she was coming from.

My father, Hubert Wayne Bell, around 1955
My father, Hubert Wayne Bell, around 1955

Growing up I was fascinated by the Native American culture. I wanted to be one of them and spent hours researching my Dad’s family trying to find a connection that would prove my Native American bloodline.  Though looking at my father, sister and brother one could plainly see some interesting colorful influence on our family gene pool, we have yet to find the documentation to support what it might be.

As a teenager I was in love with the Jackson 5.  I had all their records and wanted to marry Michael.  My little sister was influenced by that as well.  One time we were at an out of town football game watching my brothers play. Our team was primarily White with a sprinkling of Hispanic, the other football team was entirely Black.  There was a large family sitting near us that was with the opposing team. When my six year old sister saw them she got very excited and yelled out, “Look mom, it’s the Jackson 5!”  My mom was horrified, she shushed my sister and smiled a shy apology to the family.  My sister’s reaction and our general response to anyone of color was born out of our fascination with them.  All children are curious about difference, and unless that curiosity is tainted by a racist environment they will explore and learn about each other without preconception.

Me (far right) with my siblings
Me (far right) with my siblings

At that same football game I took my little sister to the restroom which was packed with girls from the other team’s cheer leading squad.  We walked in the door and they all stopped talking then stared at us. I smiled and said hello, then squeezed through them to take little sis to the stall. The silence was uncomfortable, but soon my sister finished and walked out to wash her hands. As we stood there, two of the girls came to the sink and asked if they could touch our hair. My hair was long, brown and straight, my sister had soft natural curls almost black in color. The girls began to smooth our hair, talking about how long it was, play with different braiding techniques and discussing it’s texture.  Then the other girls started to talk about their own hair and soon we were all talking about our hair, outfits and cheer leading.

When you grow up in a sheltered bubble, without any negative influence regarding difference, you maintain that untainted acceptance of everyone.  It is only when society begins to point out those differences that children form an opinion.  Racism is learned.

But what about the guilt?  Why did I spend my life running from my whiteness? Why did my daughters go through the same thing growing up? I began to realize that education had the greatest impact.  What I learned in my grade school days was so sugary sweet that I graduated with the belief that America was the savior of the world and that Slavery was a  blight caused by a few bad people wiped clean by the heroic Abraham Lincoln.  The Civil Rights Movement was touched on with very little information about Martin Luther King, Jr. and a great emphasis about how great President Kennedy was.

I believe it was the desecration of the Native American people that kicked off my passion for other cultures.  My great grandfather Arthur Buchanan lived for many years with the Blackfoot and  Lakota Sioux in Pine Ridge, and was seven years old when some of his friends were killed during the Wounded Knee massacre. Grandpa Buchanan came to America with his parents from Scotland.  He loved the Sioux people and spent much of his life helping them. His stories contributed to my fascination with other cultures.

My Great-Great Grandparents
My Great-Great Grandparents

When I got into college and began to take history and philosophy courses, I started to wake up.  Some of the required books led me to read other books that opened my eyes to a deeper understanding of our history and the unfolding America.  Beyond that was the enlightening accounts of human atrocities across the globe throughout history.  It was a Pandora’s Box and I craved more.  I found myself seeking out stories of conquest and oppression, from Manifest Destiny to the Salem Witch Trials, the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition.  In most cases the common denominator in the historical accounts was European conquest and the progress of religion or entitlement.

I grew up barefoot running around on a farm.  At that time poor people in my part of California lived a farming life.  We grew most of our food and made a twice per year visit to Sears for clothes supplemented by hand-me-downs from relatives.  My parents came to California with their parents from Oklahoma and Michigan during the 1940’s.  Their ancestors were struggling farm folk as well.  Irish, Scottish, English and a sprinkling of something mysterious rooted in the back country of the South, our family is a perfect representation of the plain old melting pot America has come to be.

Me, dad, mom and siblings
Me, dad, mom and siblings

Maybe part of the influence for me was a longing to belong to something bigger. I was searching for identity, searching for a “race” or a heritage that had a culture I could be proud of.  What I’ve come to realize is that my culture is American, my race is American Stew and pride can be found in the multicolored beauty of the faces that built and continue to build this awesome country.  My  husband’s simple words have brought me around to understand that the way to a more united and equal America is by less separation and more conversation, a focus on our commonalities rather than our differences and finding pride in our diversity.  Remembering that no matter what color, age, shape, gender or lifestyle we are equally deserving of justice and freedom, mercy and understanding.

We must be willing to listen to the stories from oppressed people about the daily adjustments they have had to make in order to feel safe and free. We must discuss ways to eliminate the need for a Black father to lecture his son about how to avoid being arrested, beat or killed just because he is mistaken for a criminal. We also must be willing to accept the fact that most White people today have a mixed bag of ancestry with a naive understanding about Black life, but do not have hate and racism in their hearts. They do not always know how to help, but the desire to do something is there.

How can I serve in this capacity?  By making sure that if I am going to stand up for the right of anyone it must be unbiased.  That my recognition of one segment’s oppression while ignoring another is biased.  By celebrating me, my family, my history and continuing to walk on the side of American Freedom in the spirit our forefathers really meant it to be.  By rooting for the winner as well as the underdog and walking with the knowledge that ALL of us are truly created equal, and that with freedom comes the responsibility to make sure EVERYONE among us is able to experience that freedom.


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Cheryl Hunter

Eve's Crossing is a state of mind. Cheryl Hunter is the editor and creator of Eve's Crossing.

3 thoughts on “Running from my White-ness”

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