Running from my White-ness

This has been a difficult year for many as we adjust to a new government administration that seems the polar opposite of the previous eight years.  The past administration has been blamed for increasing racial tension and making our country less safe. I continue to look for any logic in their thinking, yet what I believed would be a uniting moment in our country’s tumultuous current state turned out to actually divide us more. My husband has been the voice of reason for eight years. He said that the increase in tension between cultural, political, religious and racial groups is due to the scab being removed and all the ugly coming to the surface. That actually makes a lot of sense, but the new administration seems to be a dirty bandage that is causing further infection.

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), but I expect everyone to play nice. 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. Lately, though, I am beginning to wonder if my need to crusade for people of color and those who seem to be treated unfairly is just as biased in its obsession as the most racist among us in their need to oppress.  The answer may be what my husband said when he 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 this statement seems strange, but it makes perfect sense once I apply 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 ugliness that has come out of the shadows over the past two years, leading up to and since the 2016 election of a new U.S. president, did not surprise me in its existence, but it did surprise me in its newfound arrogance. To be so openly bigoted is something not seen on such a scale in my lifetime. The ugly has been oozing out for some time, leaking into all walks of social and cultural groups. I have been inspired to climb onto a platform and fight for the voice of the oppressed to be heard…but now wonder if that action is actually defeating its purpose. Knowing that I am the epitome of the “white privilege” that plays such an important role in how and why we’ve gotten here, maybe there are better ways to help. I hope to discover those ways while writing this, but first must reveal the process that so many of us privileged Americans have experienced during our own enculturation, and how “whiteness” is about more than skin color.

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 part of that culture, 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 only 1% DNA connecting me to Native American. I do have a strong amount connecting me to Portugal, Spain and Morocco, with a slight trace from the Caucasus. The other 98% is Britain, made up primarily of English and Irish. Why does this matter to me? Should this matter to me? Somehow early in childhood I recognized and became fascinated by the differences in the faces I was seeing on television or in places outside my small town bubble. That helped to shape my attitude and view of different cultures, but I have begun to realize that the empathy I developed was misdirected by a watered down and outright censored education. My mother and grandmother were influential in shaping us with an open heart when it comes to all life, they were advocates for racial harmony and wholly against discrimination. I am grateful for the teachings of my mother and grandmother, but regret the lack of exposure to other cultures during my childhood. This lack of exposure led to an amusing ignorant understanding of other people. Let me share an example.

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 day our family went to an out of town football game that my brothers played in while my sister and I joined the team cheerleaders on the sidelines. 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 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 cheerleading squad.  We walked in the door, they stopped talking and 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 its 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. We went back to the game and waved to each other across the field.

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 or your family circle point out those differences that children form an opinion.  Racism is learned. In addition, as in my case, without exposure to different cultures and the opportunity to interact with them regularly, we cannot develop a natural understanding of each other.

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 lived in has a Black population of 0.9%. Thinking this over I realize that my sister and I may have 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? Did I influence them or were these natural friendships? Am I over-analyzing it?

Our family is quite diverse. I now have African American, Mexican, Filipino, Navajo, Romanian, Dutch, Hawaiian, and other mixtures in my family tree. This has helped me to realize that being in awe of such diversity may be racism on my part because I am emphasizing the difference. Yet, my reaction is born out of the past experience of that small town closed-minded mentality. My niece and nephew are half Puerto Rican, and they had their share of social difficulties living in an our town because of their dark skin and curly hair. I was angered time and again by the hateful comments thrown their way. As an adult in that same community, their mother, my little sister Wendy, endured comments about her choice of friends and mates.  After dating a Black man for a year or so she was referred to in our town as “that chick who dates Black guys.”  In fact, while attending school in this small town as kids, my brother came home from his first day of Kindergarten crying because the other kids called him “brown potato” due to his dark skin and hair. My sister and I have discussed this at length, and our adult children laugh at the emphasis we put on diversity. But what Wendy and I have concluded is that our under-exposure to diversity while growing up in a small white town, coupled with the philosophy taught by our family matriarch, made us crusaders instead of educators on the subject.

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.

But what about the guilt?  Why did I spend my life running from my whiteness? Why did my youngest daughter 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 lot of emphasis about how great President Kennedy was.

I believe it was the desecration of the Native American people, however, that kicked off my true 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. He loved the Sioux people and spent much of his life helping them. His stories contributed to my fascination with them.

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 to other books that opened my eyes to a deeper understanding of our history and the unfolding America.  I dove into the historical accounts of the Wounded Knee massacre and the obliteration of the First Nation people on our continent. I was also affected by the historical accounts of human atrocities across the globe. 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 were 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 backcountry of the South, our family is a perfect representation of the so-called “melting pot” America has been referred as. But that melting pot is really more of an invasion, conquest and forced assimilation if we want to describe it accurately.

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

Maybe the realization of my heritage made me want to belong to something better. 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 me 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.  My childhood curiosity and need to connect to something exotic influenced me to discover the history of other cultures. That is a good thing, but becoming a naive crusader for people as if they do not have their own intellectual voice is really perpetuating the stigma that they are ignorant and need to be taken care of. Really? Who am I to speak for them?

We must reach a point at which we understand and embrace our differences as well as our commonalities so that we can move toward a more cohesive existence. But everyone needs to have a seat at the table in order to do that. We must agree that no matter what color, age, shape, gender or lifestyle we are equally deserving of justice and freedom, mercy and understanding. Starting from a point of equality and becoming the embodiment of the blindfolded Lady Justice, we must start a new conversation. 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, beaten or killed just because he is mistaken for a criminal. We must be willing to remember that this land was conquered and taken at the expense of other cultures, and that the people were not the ones who chose this for themselves but now are forced to abide by the decisions of their leaders. 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 other cultures, and not all of have hate and racism in their hearts. They do not always know how to help, but the desire to do so is present.

How can I serve my fellow Americans who have a history of oppression and injustice mixed into their rich culture?  By making sure that if I am going to stand up for the right of anyone it must be balanced, and that my recognition of one culture’s oppression while ignoring the point of view of another is biased.  I can serve by celebrating me, my family, and my history while continuing to lead by example.  Finally, I can make a difference by embracing who I am now without forgetting who we were, to be reminded that with freedom comes the responsibility to make sure EVERYONE among us is able to experience it.