The third graders had an assignment to read a biography of a historical figure, then do an oral report — three minutes telling that person’s story, in costume, as that person. My very white son picked Martin Luther King Jr. His choice made me proud.
We lived in a very white city in a very white state, about half an hour from the very white city and very white school district I attended as a child.
I remember one black student in my high school, a shy football star who blushed easily, loved by everyone. I remember one Asian student (a girl), and a Latino student a grade ahead of me, a popular kid named Carlos. Throw in one Native American and a handful of students of Polynesian descent, and that’s about as ethnic as our school got in the late 80s and early 90s.
Our teachers did pretty well trying to instill values like equality in us, especially Miss Mackay and Miss Drummond (US history and English, respectively), but the reality is that when you swim in whiteness, stories about slavery and Jim Crow are easy to condemn but very hard to fully grasp.
I was a college senior — and a history minor — when I first learned of the hideous belief that many whites in the past (and, unfortunately, some in the present) held that black people came from monkeys.
Again, I was an adult when I learned about it.
Despite my hometown, I wasn’t as sheltered as many of my peers. I’d lived in Europe for three years. I was the child of an immigrant and a professor who interacted with many nationalities and traveled to multiple continents. Our home was one where reading broadly and being culturally aware was valued. My parents helped a family of southeastern Asian refugees who moved into a basement apartment across the street. Mom volunteered at the library to teach a poor minority man to read.
Yet I still didn’t know this stain on human history until I had a history class in college.
Several years after that college class, Oprah had two mothers on her show — one white, one black — whose daughters had spent time with the other’s family for several days. Camera crews tagged along for both families. If memory serves, this was shortly after the OJ verdict, when race issues in the country were particularly tense. The episode was an attempt to open a dialogue and build bridges.
Near the end of the black daughter’s stay with the white family, the white mother talked about how much she’d learned from this amazing young woman. She expressed her love and respect.
Then she unknowingly threw a match onto kerosene by saying that the girl was such a “beautiful creature.”
As a white woman, I knew she would have (and probably had) described her own daughter using the exact same words. I knew that this white mother used the term as a high compliment because she hadn’t ever learned what I finally did in that university-level history class: that calling a black person a “creature” hearkened right back to being called a monkey, an animal. In short, that she was calling someone else less than human.
Not what the mother intended; I was sure of that. I fully expected the confusion to be cleared up with someone saying, “You do know why she and her mother are upset, right? That you used an offensive term?” And then I expected the white mom to say, “Wait, what? No, I didn’t! I had no idea!”
Bridging this very divide was the entire point of the show, right?
That’s not what happened. As was to be expected, the black teenage girl was hurt, and on seeing the footage, her mother was understandably outraged.
Oprah — who was what we now call woke on pretty much every issue years before anyone else was — didn’t step in to clarify. Instead, Oprah assumed that the white mom had genuinely understood what she’d said, with all of the racist emotional and historical weight her words carried.
No one even identified “creature” as the problematic part of the statement.
The dialogue, and any bridging that might have happened, shut down there. Oprah and the black mother demanded why the white mom had been so offensive, and the white mom looked panicked and utterly confused, with no clue what they were talking about. I totally understood why. It could been me not too many years before, but I was fortunate enough to not put my foot in my mouth in a worldwide forum.
The two sides talked past each other. They weren’t communicating because the white woman literally had no idea what they were talking about, and the black women assumed she did know. I wanted to jump through the screen and clarify, to teach the white mom so she’d understand and be able to apologize.
I wanted to explain to the black mother and to Oprah that yes, we white people really can be THAT ignorant.
This kind of thing is why I was entirely unsurprised when Julianne Hough wore blackface for a Halloween costume. Of course, it (rightfully) blew up the internet. Here’s why it didn’t shock me: Julianne grew up about ten minutes from my childhood home. She wasn’t raised with an understanding about blackface.
That said, she did have people in her circle in Hollywood who warned her against the costume, and she should have listened to them. More than that, she should have learned better on her own. Yet I have no doubt that she honestly was clueless. Blackface was one thing I learned (thank you, Miss Mackay!), but not all of my peers did.
Which brings us back to my son and his report as Martin Luther King Jr.
His costume was simple: white shirt and tie, with a little suit jacket and dress shoes. Hair combed neatly. Mustache drawn on with eyeliner.
“Shouldn’t we put makeup on to make my face darker?” he asked.
I’m ashamed to admit that for a brief flash, I wondered if doing so would be okay. I knew that 99% of people in the area wouldn’t bat an eye because they were utterly ignorant of the offensive nature of blackface and/or wouldn’t see it as blackface. (This was nearly a decade before Hough’s debacle.)
My third-grade son still thought in absolutes, and I didn’t know if he’d understand the nuances of why wearing dark makeup would be offensive. I regret not having that conversation with him then. After all, he was studying Martin Luther King Jr. Surely he would have had a basic understanding had I explained. I know that now.
Regardless, at the time, I just told him no, let’s not wear any dark makeup. That’s not appropriate. The mustache is enough.
Parents and siblings gathered for the performances, called Time Machine Book Reports, where each student, in turn, stepped through sparkly streamers onto a platform stage as if from the past and delivered their three-minute speech. My son did a fabulous job.
Afterward, a mother and her children came up to us. She thanked my son for representing a notable black man from history for her son to see. That’s when I noticed her children: a couple of little white kids and one black boy, clearly adopted.
I teared up. Thank heavens I didn’t go along with my son’s suggestion of makeup. While 99% of the community wouldn’t have given it a second thought, 1% would. And that day, the most important part of that 1% was present. I’m so glad I made the right choice. I still hate the fact that the option of catering to the 99% crossed my mind, if only for a few seconds.
Nelson Mandela is famous for saying, “No one is born hating another person . . . People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.”
His words are true, yet I believe that racism is a bit more complicated, and that white people like me need to push beyond the idea that they have to be taught to be racist to actually be racist. I don’t believe that’s true.
My parents taught me that all races are equal. Yet the first time I was in an enclosed space with several black people, I felt deeply uncomfortable. Fortunately, my parents also instilled values like critical thinking. So I sat back and thought. Why did I feel that way? Not because I felt superior. Not because anyone around me posed a threat.
I felt uncomfortable because I was entirely out of my (very white) element.
Anything that’s significantly different from what you’ve experienced before can be unsettling, whether that’s culture, climate, food, language, or, yes, race. The familiar as safe and comforting is a normal part of being human. That sense of unease can be closely connected to the flight-or-fight response.
It’s up to us to consciously challenge those feelings and thoughts when they arise, to make ourselves sit with them, face them, and overcome them.
I was a young mom when this concept hit me like a bolt of lightning. My second child was born with striking red hair, and literally from the delivery room onward, total strangers stopped when they saw her, cooed, and commented on her beautiful hair.
This was so common from day one that she never developed stranger-danger fears about the situation — about other things, sure, but never about yet another person stopping to stare and gush about her hair.
That was beyond normal. Yawn. Tenth person today.
On one sunny afternoon when she was about four months old, I pushed her in a stroller on the very campus I’d attended in college, where I planned to do some research for a novel.
On the way, a beautiful woman approached with the darkest skin I’d ever seen. As happened literally every time I took my daughter anywhere, the woman stopped us, bent down, and exclaimed over my baby and her red hair.
My daughter, too young to sit on her own or say a single word, took one look at the black woman and shrieked in terror at the top of her lungs. In her short life, she’d never seen anyone with dark skin. The sight was scary to her tiny baby self.
That moment was defining for me as a mother.
I knew that if she was to grow up respecting all people of all races and identities, then she needed to be exposed to all kinds of people so that different didn’t mean scary or dangerous or bad.
And that meant going out of my way to show her television programs and movies with people of color, reading her a variety of books, and otherwise making sure she saw the variety in the world despite living in a very white place.
I’m sure I could have done better, but a couple of things made me feel some relief that I wasn’t entirely botching it. First, for her third birthday, she begged for a Barbie — a black one. She didn’t call it that, but she made it very clear that she didn’t want the white one.
Second, around the same time, she saw a black woman on TV (I think it was on Sesame Street, but I’m not sure), pointed, and said, “Oh, Mommy! Isn’t she beautiful?!”
I was far from a perfect parent, but at least my daughter, whose skin was so white she practically glowed in the dark, viewed black people in a positive light. It was a small step, but a step in the right direction.
The experience with my infant baby and the black woman has stuck with me because it showed me that racist issues can sneak up in subtle ways, and they don’t necessarily start from a racist place.
She was literally too young to know what race was, let alone to develop any kind of racist ideas. Yet seeing someone vastly different from anyone she’d ever seen was scary at first.
How many white people, fully grown, experience a similar anxiousness but never challenge it, never think that it’s not their sixth sense signalling actual danger, but that instead, it’s their own life experience crying “different”? That it’s just their amygdala needing to be challenged, expanded, retaught?
I’m hopeful about people I see in my community who condemn the current protests and refuse to acknowledge racism and white privilege. I believe that in many cases, they’ve never experienced being a minority, even in a single room or a subway car. I believe they’ve allowed family or cultural lore to shape their beliefs without challenging them. I’m hopeful because of a college-aged young man I know who pushed back against the idea that our area was racist until a friend took him to a recent rally and heard from several black men who live here.
I’m optimistic that those who are good at heart, like my baby girl was 23 years ago, will be willing to learn and listen and see — and change. Not everyone will, but I believe that significant change is coming, and that the rising generation will create a world very different from the one Gen-X and before were raised in.
Yet we white people have so much yet to learn. I appreciate every black person who has tried to patiently teach me, though that is literally not their job. It’s mine.
More than that, not being racist isn’t enough, as we now hear; we must be anti-racist. Part of that means we must open our minds to the scary likelihood that we, ourselves, are racist in some way or another — or, more likely, in some ways.
Since George Floyd’s murder in particular, I’ve tried to sit back and listen, to read and watch and figure out what I don’t know, what I can change about myself, and what I can do to be part of creating positive change moving forward.
As a teenager, I genuinely didn’t understand what white privilege was at all. Now I know I have it, but I also know that I can’t fully grasp just how huge that privilege is even though I’m approaching 50. But I’m trying to learn.
My mother immigrated to the U.S. in 1965, and my father’s parents were both European immigrants in the 1900s.
I can legitimately say that my ancestors didn’t own slaves. That doesn’t get me off the hook. I’m still benefiting from a society built by slaves and furthered by systemic discrimination.
One of countless examples: After serving in Vietnam, my father benefited from the GI bill and got a Ph.D., while many black men who served their country in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam didn’t receive the same benefits despite faithfully serving their country.
Because my father was able to get a Ph.D., he became a professor. The GI Bill was likely helpful in getting a mortgage for my parents’ starter house and then their second, bigger, house, the one I grew up in.
As the dependent of a professor, I got half tuition at the local university. I was easily able to graduate from college without a dime of student-loan debt. Even my good grades and academic scholarships were a sign of my privilege; I had typical teen angsty problems, sure, but I didn’t live in fear of walking to or from school. I didn’t have to hold down a job to help pay for utilities or babysit siblings while my parents worked several jobs. My father wasn’t incarcerated because of systemic racism, plunging us into poverty. I could study and do homework when black teens couldn’t for any number of reasons.
After my son’s Time Machine Book Report, my three other children (all girls, all redheads) chose Princess Diana, Joan of Arc, and the youngest chose Ruby Bridges.
When she was first researching Ruby, she grew upset. She came to me, asking if I knew that Ruby was still alive and, in her words, not that old. She was horrified to realize just how recent segregation was.
It was recent. And while we’ve come a long way, we have so much farther to go.
The more I learn about racism in our history, the more I realize I have left to learn. I need to educate myself, and I’m trying to share what I’ve learned with others in my very white sphere.
2020 has helped me begin unpacking and challenging unconscious biases and beliefs, something I’ll need to do for the rest of my life.
I hope my fellow recipients of white privilege will join me.
Annette Lyon is a USA Today bestselling author, Whitney Award winner and recipient of eight Best of State medals. If she’s not writing, knitting, or eating chocolate, she can likely be found binge watching Gilmore Girls. Look for her latest novel, about the Winter War during War II, The Girl in Gray, available in ebook, paperback, and audio.