There are certain things you aren’t supposed to talk about in polite company. The banned dinner party conversations are supposed to be “religion and politics.” That rule leaves the door wide open for discussions of sexually transmitted infections, the Yankees, and other distasteful topics, so we probably want to have a few more guidelines. I think, no matter what, we can all agree that one of the stickiest of topics continues to be race.
It’s tricky subject matter. Few things get people quite as fired up, while simultaneously terrifying them that they’ll come across as a bad person.
My participants don’t seem to have that issue. Especially the kids. Race is something they notice, and they see no need to hold back. If I’m thinking it, I should say it! (I can’t really fault them for this, as this is a flaw that I’m working on myself.)
I am white. None of my current participants are. In the two years I’ve worked at Anonymous Agency, I have not worked with a white family. It’s not a big suprise, considering that I’m usually the only white person I see when walking around the area. As much as I’d like for this to not be an issue, it is something people notice.
I mean, I guess it is. I’ve been surprised at how many people have been confused by my race.
Child: “You’re Puerto Rican, right?”
SJ: “Why do you think that?”
Child: “Because you speak Spanish like one. And you don’t look Dominican.”
SJ: “I’m actually not.”
Child: “So…you are Domincan?”
For the record, I’m almost actually white. As in the shade. I have an Irish nose and freckles. People have never been confused by “what I am” before. When this first came up, when I was working at a camp for children in foster care, I mentioned it to the director. Not out of concern, I just found it amusing. She thought it was because I was one of very few white people they had interacted with, and that most of their interactions with white people were not too positive. In that way, it was kind of a good thing.
I’ve gotten lots of these types of comments over the years. In addition to constantly being told by children that I look like their teachers.
16 y/o: “Ugh, I cannot deal with that white lady anymore!”
SJ: “Oh come on, I’m standing right here.”
16 y/o: “Nah, not you, you don’t count.”
12 y/o: “SJ doesn’t play. She’s mad white, but she lets go when she has to. I’ve seen you get black.”
SJ: “Thank you?”
Mom: “My daughter told me the worker stopped by, and I thought she meant the ACS worker, I started asking what that bitch wanted. She was surprised, she was like, ‘the white lady’s a bitch?’ I was like, oh, Miss SJ, no, we’re cool.
SJ: “I’m glad we’re cool. Am I really the white lady, after all our time together?”
13 y/o: “I don’t like black people.”
SJ: “Wow, that’s a pretty big statement. You know all black people?”
13 y/o: “No, the ones around here.”
SJ: “Oh, ok, so there are some people you don’t like. Can you dislike someone and not their entire race?”
13 y/o: “I guess.”
SJ: “Well, we get along, does that mean you love all white people, no matter what?”
13 y/o: “You’re white?! I thought you were Irish!”
That last one might be my favorite.
I’ve learned to joke about it. I see no reason to let it go on as the (white) elephant in the room. Recently, I walked into an ACS meeting with a mother and daughter, who are Dominican and dark-skinned. The guard asked if I was the worker, and had me sign in with my ID.
SJ: “How did he know I was the worker?”
Mom: “SJ, you are crazy. You walk in here with two brown women, talking about ‘How they know I’m the worker?'”
They could barely speak for laughing. It lessened the tension when we walked into a pretty difficult meeting. (I’m very good.)
But look at our president, we’re living in a post-racial society!
I’ll give you a moment to laugh at that one.
We all know that race still matters. People aren’t color blind. OK, some people are color blind. Like my dad. Try to get the man to distinguish between blue and grey, it’s a nightmare. But no time to talk about that now.
Even when you love someone, it still matters. My cousins are Native American. They’re all adopted. They’re father is also Native, their mother, my aunt, is a white lady like myself. (“White lady” is cool, I’m taking it back.) But the fact that they look different from half of their family does come up.
They had come to visit in New York once, and my cousin, who was twelve at the time, asked why so many black women had white babies at the Museum of Natural History. I looked at him and asked, “What do you think people think of us?” He told me that they don’t think we’re related. And it’s true. My room in college was essentially wallpapered with photos of these kids, and people regularly asked who they were. When I told them they were my cousins, this simply wasn’t enough. “No, these kids. These ones. They look…Filipino? Mexican?”
How could I expect the random boy my roommate was, ahem, hosting to walk away without a concrete explanation as to how, exactly, these non-white children were my family? He was entitled to an explanation.
As much as I wish me being white didn’t say anything to my participants, it does. It’s the first thing they notice. The second thing is probably that I look twelve. This could lead to the idea that I don’t really have much of an understanding of them.
As usual, I don’t have answers. I didn’t solve the issue of race in America, though I know you were all expecting that to be the conclusion. Interracial adoption? I think it’s a good thing, and necessary, but we have to recognize that love isn’t all you need. (Sorry, John.) White lady social worker, working with non-white lady families? I don’t think there’s another option.
But I do have the option to be open about our differences, and not act like noticing them is somehow shameful. I have the option of challenging assumptions about race, and presenting the idea that not all people who look the same are the same.
It seems to be the best the white lady can do.