Wednesday, November 05, 2008

I hope I say this right....

I grew up in western Pennsylvania. Racist, western Pennsylvania. It's true. I'm from there, so I can tell you that it is kind of like that. Not in the overt, southern racist kind of way, but more in the "we don't know any black people" or "the only black people we know do bad things" kind of racist. There's a little bit of's a small difference, but it does exist. I heard the N word growing up and it wasn't a nice word, but it wasn't verboten either. There was like, one black kid in my school. His name was Harrison Dixon the Third and he looked like a tiny little boy version of Benson. I included a picture of Benson just in case you are too young to remember (You infants, you).

oh my kindergarten class, there was a girl named Shokia. She peed on her cot. That's all I remember about her. But I don't remember much about most of the kids in that class, to be honest.

Unbeknownst to me, about an hour away, outside of Cleveland, my husband was growing up in a racially mixed area where he knew lots of African American kids. Just over the border in PA, though, they were few and far between.

Fast forward a few years to the Cosby Show. They had a girl named Vanessa. I'd never met anybody else with my name and it was kind of cool. I thought Malcolm Jamal Warner was cute and funny. But I never, ever said so. My posters were of the Two Corey-s and Kirk Cameron and an unidentified blond J Crew model in plaid Madras shorts.

Then I went to college. During a magical snow-storm that had us snowed into our dorm, my floor huddled together and dished out all our secrets. Mel confessed that she would love to go out with Dee, the tall, black star of our college basketball team. Mel had porcelain white skin and the most amazing shiny black hair, which belied her very dutch last name. And I had a moment. "You would do that?" I asked, unguarded. She looked back at me and furrowed her eyebrows. "Why wouldn't I?"

Why wouldn't she, indeed?

I felt so stupid. And uninformed. And....and....racist.

A few years later, I found myself sitting in the food court at the Staten Island Mall. ..a small oasis of pleasant smells in the middle of an establishment built on top of the world's largest land fill. I looked around me and realized I was the only vanilla, mid-western, culturally un-identifiable person in the room. It was a moment.
I realized how Harrison Dixon III and Shokia must have felt.

Now I live in the sunny south. It is what it is. And I have a friend who is black. African American. She is actually Pacific Islander, Spanish, Belgian, and African. BONUS. I think she knows this, but she's my first real black friend. It's nice of her to give me a chance and not smack me when I say or do something stupid. She's told me a little bit about Kwanzaa and the racism that exists against white people. It's great to finally have somebody to ask, who knows me and understands that I'm not trying to be annoying, I just really have no idea.

So, now we have a black President. I didn't vote for him, I confess. But I don't mind that he was elected. I actually think it's pretty great. I'm looking forward to seeing how Michelle does things. (I LOVE first Ladies. All first ladies. I identify with them somehow.) I feel like....and I hope I'm saying this I have another black friend. I have a lot to learn. I think probably we all do.

This was really hard for me to write.


Sara said...

But it was honest and that's what i've always loved about you.

Our friends Kevin and Marsha in Maryland are black and they have 9 children, they've all been such a huge blessing to us.

Kevin said this to us right before we left and we told him that we wanted to be apart of a multi-cultural church in louisville. As well as a Multi-cultural community.

He said...

"As white folks, you'll really bless a brother's heart when you admit and are honest that you have some racism towards people of color.

A brother doesn't want someone who says they've never been racist they want someone who is honest and acknowledges that they want and need help overcoming their racism."

Carl and I have taken those words to heart.

So don't feel bad because somewhere "you're blessing a brother."

gerbmom said...

I did vote for him and I am sooooooooooooooo excited. As is my daughter at college in MASS. She was over the moon last night.
I can't wait to see how it all plays out....
I am just excited that this election caught the hearts and minds of the youth and they are back in the game again! :)

Jess said...

Very well said. I didn't vote for him either, but I was very conflicted, and I think I'm happy he won. I have one black friend too. :) Ben, on the other hand, has a great mix. He's one of those people who can move between groups pretty seamlessly. We are really hoping our campus ministry at NIU can be a mix of everything - white, Latino, black, Asian. It's a dream, and probably only possibly by the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit, but hey - I believe in that sort of thing.

Ron said...

yes, you said this about right, Ness. When I went to the Army it was a shock. I was even threatened personally threated by a few, but our drill instructors were quick to ingrain in us that the only two colors we needed to be aware of in the Army were that we all wore the same color green and we all bled the same shade of red. End of story. That stuck for life.

However, to say each of us are free of all prejudices is foolish as there are things we fear, if not in race, then it's another's creedence or belief. It's our nature to fear, it's our mission to love.

I'll send you a link that may make you smile.

Anonymous said...

I got your email. Tehehe.

As your only Black friend... I am feelin' some pressure. How will I be able to pass on my people's love of fried chicken and watermelon? How will I be able to properly instruct you to "pimp walk"?

I kid.

Thank you Vanessa. I have enjoyed our talks about race, faith, friendship, and every other topic we seem to haphazardly land on. I love you.
The best way, as your commenter stated, is to say... "I don't know how to do this- but I want to know." Too many people hide their ignorance and racism.
And. As Ron commented, we all have some sort of prejudices... none of us are exempt from that.

I am flattered. Thank you.

ness said...

Fried chicken and watermelon? SHOOT! I'm in.

The pimp walking will be considerably more difficult as I have no rhythm whatsoever.

no seriously. It's bad. Like I have no joints in my hips and elbows.

go ahead and picture that now....

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