My daughter, a college sophomore, joined her university’s gospel choir this year. The choir was founded to celebrate African-American culture. We are white. Beyond the joy of singing wonderful music, the benefits to my daughter of membership in the choir are obvious, from learning a lot about African-American history to participating in deep discussions on such questions as whether nonbelievers have a right to sing Christian-themed lyrics. She’s also getting firsthand experience as a nonmajority member of a group. All told, an opportunity hard to argue with.
Recently, however, the choir selected individual members to take on tour, and my daughter was not among them. As is her nature, she agonized over why. Was it her singing? She couldn’t be sure, of course, but she thought she compared favorably to students who had been asked to go. Could it be her level of commitment? No, she was sure she had worked very hard to be a responsible group member. Eventually, she got around to wondering if race had been a factor in who was selected. How could this be? Was it possible that the color of your skin made a difference after all?
Maybe, I told her. But maybe not. You’ll never know unless you ask, I said. She said she couldn’t. She didn’t want to appear whiny, or worse, as if she felt entitled. I reminded her that blacks regularly confront not knowing whether they have been turned down, or out, or away because of their skin color. My daughter wasn’t consoled. Well, what if it’s true? I asked. I reminded her that she’s pro-affirmative action, and that there are times when racial accommodations make sense for the good of the group, or the individual, or the goal. Still, no consolation. Finally, I joked that if the goal was to showcase a gospel choir, just how many blue-eyed blondes do you need? She didn’t laugh.
I tried another tack. History. Not African-American history, but mine.
There were many lessons I had to learn as a young white teacher working with black children and their families on Chicago’s South Side. They were different from what my daughter is trying to figure out, of course, as they are different again from what my education students, most of whom are white, are trying to learn as future teachers in New York City, where an overwhelming majority of children and their families do not look like them. The one common thread that runs across the years and the venues, however, is the need to acknowledge that being white in a conversation is not the same as being black. This doesn’t mean one perspective always trumps the other. It only means that we’ve got to be unsparingly honest about what’s at stake for both parties.
I told my daughter how devastated I was as a young kindergarten teacher on the South Side when a black mother demanded to know why her twin girls insisted that their hair would be like mine when they grew up, that is, very long, very blonde, and very straight. I, of course, protested immediately that I hadn’t done a thing. She didn’t look at all convinced. Next, I tried to play it down. All kindergarten girls want to look like their teachers, I said. At this, she looked angry. I then stammered my way through a promise that I would try to be extra-sensitive to the problem and see what I could do. She had barely gotten out the door when I began assuring myself that no one worked harder than I to be a colorblind teacher. My insides actually hurt with the unfairness of it all.
Twenty years later, the Nappy Hair controversy erupted, wherein a white teacher was excoriated by black and Hispanic parents for reading her class an award-winning children’s book. By then, I had learned enough to know that the twins’ mother had not only been right to be worried, but also had a right to ask. She was trying to tell me that hair is a racialized issue in America. I had tried to tell her it wasn’t. Finally, I had to accept that the twins’ mother, who, by the way, was one of the first I knew to wear her hair in its natural style, knew more about being black than I did.
I also shared with my daughter my experience with another black mother in that same school. She had four children under the age of 6, one of whom was in my class. Until family night, I thought we were on good terms. Thinking she would appreciate the gesture, I reserved a large table for her, the kids, and me, and helped with the dinners as I chatted about large families. After the evening’s events, she sought me out in the lobby. Loudly and furiously, she first called me a “white bitch” in front of half the school. Then, screaming, she demanded to know what right I had to think she needed my help or to insult her for having so many children.
With this, my daughter finally had something to laugh at, seeing the ridiculousness of the allegation in light of her 11 aunts and uncles, my siblings. She guessed, though, that it probably wasn’t funny to me at the time. It wasn’t. I was mortified and humiliated in front of my colleagues, the children, and the other parents. I was also deeply frustrated by the assumption of racism. Who better than I could anticipate any mother’s need for help with four small children?
Of course, my sense of injustice made me conveniently forget what I knew most people think about families with too many children in a row. How often after I left my Irish working-class neighborhood for college and graduate school had I been stunned by what perfect strangers would say upon learning of my six brothers and five sisters, let alone the three-bedroom Bronx apartment I invariably had to admit to? You wouldn’t think that, on hearing such information, so many random people would automatically think to ask if my father could read. But, trust me, there are too many. And before I learned to find them silly, I hated them.
So why was I so surprised when that young mother fought back against a perceived insult to her family? She was a young, black, single mother of four on welfare. I was her same age, married, and working on my second master’s. Though I still wish she had chosen another way to express her anger, the fact is that no matter what we had in common, there was more we did not. Did I think she didn’t notice? Civil rights activist Myles Horton puts it this way in The Long Haul: An Autobiography (Teachers College Press, 1997):
“You’re white, and black people can’t say they are colorblind. Whites and white-controlled institutions always remind them that they’re black, so you’ve got to recognize color. This doesn’t mean you feel superior, it’s just that you’ve got to recognize that you can never fully walk in other people’s shoes. You can only be a summer soldier, and when the excitement is over, you can go back home. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have solidarity with black people and aren’t accepted; it just means that you have a different role to play.”
The one common thread that runs across the years and the venues, is the need to acknowledge that being white in a conversation is not the same as being black.
We have to keep thinking about the terms of the conversation, I told my daughter, if for no other reason than that, as Myles Horton suggests, we never take it for granted. This is something I never stop learning. I relayed to my daughter, for example, an incident from one of my education classes that centered around Ann Haas Dyson’s The Brothers and Sisters Learn to Write. I asked the students, all of whom were white, why they thought the children in the book, all of whom were black, wrote stories steeped in popular culture. A perfectly pleasant, hard-working young woman responded quickly. “Well, what else would they write about?” she said. “They have no experiences.”
No one challenged her. Disappointed, I asked the student, “What kind of experiences do white kids have to write about?”
“Oh, you know,” she answered. “Ballet lessons. The violin. Things like that.”
“You mean, all of the white kids you know take ballet lessons and play the violin?” I responded.
“Well, no,” she said, “but I’m sure they do other things after school besides watch TV.”
“Like black kids do” was the unspoken assumption. It was clear that it had not occurred to her that black kids, including black kids who write about popular culture, might have after-school lessons. Or that white kids might not. And it certainly never occurred to her that white kids thrive on popular culture, too. Most importantly, she had yet to enter into a conversation where she might learn something worth knowing from black kids.
I asked my daughter if she was willing to quit the choir. No, she said. I was glad. I couldn’t promise what it would all mean to her in the end, as I can’t promise my white education students. I am only sure that, if she’s willing, the experience won’t be short on lessons learned.
A month later, the choir director told my daughter that a place had opened up on the tour. Did she still want to go? She did.
A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2005 edition of Education Week as Racism Explained to My White Daughter