Aw’ C’mon: Or How My Wanting to Cross Color Lines Wasn’t Always Taking Black People’s Concerns Into Consideration

10 Mar

white woman yelling black manAs I read Debby Irving’s Waking Up White, (review here) her account of “waking up” to how her own white privilege, and the greater societal systems created to give white people advantage over people of color, shaped her perceptions of race and the way she interacted across color lines, I couldn’t help but take a look at myself, and the actions and inactions I have made, or not made over the years.

One action popped into my head that happened over thirty years ago–gosh, I feel old–when I was eighteen years-old and a freshman in college in Boston.  At that time, Boston was still very racially divided, and had been dealing with high tensions due to forced school busing laws that had students from the white neighborhood of South Boston being bused to schools in the black neighborhood in Roxbury.  To say those two neighborhoods did not mix it up peacefully would be an understatement.

I remember black people, and white people themselves from “Southie” as South Boston was called, say that a black person could not walk through that neighborhood without getting beat up.  On the other hand, Roxbury was thought to be the “dangerous” impoverished black neighborhood, unsafe for any white person to hang out in.

At college there was a girl in my dorm from South Boston, who I would self-righteously argue with, boasting that at my high school in Waterbury, Connecticut, which had an over 40% black student body, everyone got along, so why couldn’t they do that here in Boston?  Her reply was, “your blacks are not like our blacks.”  (Read more about my time in Boston when I wrongly worried what my desire to cross colorlines would mean to my English professor)

Still, I was not deterred.  My roommate Donna, a punk-rocker from Long Island, and I would take turns accompanying one another to clubs–her dressing me in black spandex and torn tee’s for trips to The Rat, Boston’s premiere punk club in Kenmore Square, and me taking her to places like Celebrations, a disco across the street from The Rat, and to smaller, “black” dance clubs.

One night after being at a black dance club, Donna and I took a ride with two young, black guys we had met there.  Once in their car we drove around downtown Boston, and then through Roxbury.  At one point we pulled over outside a convenience store because one of the guys wanted to buy cigarettes.  I needed cigarettes, too.

“I’ll get your cigarettes for you.  You can stay in the car,” one of the guys said.

“No, I’ll go with you.  I want to go in the store,” I said.

“No, you should stay in here.  It’s not safe for you to  get out…white people aren’t usually out around here,” he said, gently, but with a matter-of-fact tone in his voice.

“Well, that’s all right, there shouldn’t be anything wrong with white people and black people being together…I’m not afraid..,” I countered, a combination of a few drinks and the true belief that I had something to prove…that we should all be able to mix it up across races without hate or fear.

We did go into the store together, and I remember feeling proud of myself for being this young white girl not afraid to be in the “dangerous” black neighborhood, showing my strong desire to connect across color lines, to prove to black people that I liked them, that–and that I wasn’t a racist white person like my roommate from “Southie.”

Today, thirty years later, after doing some waking up of my own, and after reading Debby’s book, I can see how my show of boldness wasn’t all so selfless, and didn’t exactly show respect to black people, in particular, to the young black man who asked me to stay inside the car while he went inside the store.

Since all of the recent bringing to light of the killings of young black men and boys at the hands of civilians and police officers, I have had the time to hear from many black mothers of sons, and fathers too on the subject.  I have heard friends of color, and strangers express how they had to have the talk with their sons, nephew, grandsons, which for white people usually means, the how babies are made talk.

The talk is mothers and fathers telling their black sons to be careful when they are out in public, to not attract attention while out walking or driving while black.  How to always acquiesce, speak politely, show your hands if pulled over by a police officer–things white boys don’t have to get told to do by their parents.  The F.B.I.’s investigation of the Ferguson Police Department finally puts out there the racial bias that black men and boys experience far more than their white counterparts.

But, it’s not only encounters with the police that get talked about.  I have had many black mothers share that they talk with their sons about being with white girls and women in public.  That they should be careful they don’t get accused of any wrongdoings by people who can’t fathom the idea of black men and white women having a positive friendship or romantic relationship.  That they are a perceived threat.

Back outside of that convenience store in Roxbury thirty years ago, when racial tensions were at an all-time high, maybe that young man thought that being seen with a white woman could be a dangerous thing for him.  Maybe he thought I was putting him at risk.  Maybe he did worry for my safety, too.  Maybe it was an unsafe area, or maybe someone would be angry seeing a young white woman with a young black man.

Maybe, just maybe, I should have listened to him, and respected his wishes to stay inside the car instead of being the self-righteous white person forcing the situation for my own selfish reasons.  It was as if I was saying that he didn’t know what he was talking about.  I invalidated his experience of being a black person who grew up in Roxbury, and who knew what racism meant there.  I didn’t.  I was wrong.  I should have listened to him.

That’s one example, which seems like something small, but it’s pretty big if we think about it.  And, if this is just one, I know there are many, many more times I’ve acted in a way that I thought from my white perspective was the “right way” to handle race relations.

I’m learning the right way is to validate a person’s experience, and not try to twist it to serve you.  The right way is to have the courageous conversation where both people truly listen to each other, ask questions, and understand one another’s perspective so that we can make those connections across colorlines where black people and people of color feel validated and like white people really do want to understand,  do want to chip away at the systems of racism that afford white people privilege, as well as the bigger systems of oppression, and move forward together in positive ways.

That’s what I learned about myself and that car ride through Roxbury thirty years ago.  I’m thankful that it’s never too late to learn.









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