“It’s SJ!” “Who? “…the white lady.”

15 09 2011

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.




15 responses

15 09 2011

One day the space aliens will land, with their green scaly skin, three arms, two heads, and antennas for ears, and suddenly what color I am and what color my husband is won’t concern people very much. At least that’s always been my hope.

15 09 2011

Would love to get to that point without the green scaly aliens. I’ve never met a scaly anthing that I like! (It’s okay to be prejudiced against snakes, lizards, etc. right? 🙂 )

15 09 2011

That’s silly. Aliens don’t have antennae.

It’s funny you mention that, I took a psych of stereotypes and prejudice class when I was a freshman in college, and the professor asked what people thought would make us feel united as a people (forgetting about race, nationality, etc.) The first answer was, “If we were attacked by aliens.”

15 09 2011

Was this around the time when Independence Day was out?

15 09 2011

It was actually years afterwards, but I guess that was a movie that really stuck with us all.

15 09 2011

My life is basically the reverse of yours. About 90% or more of my participants are white (and rural) I am most definitely not. But unlike those you interact with none of those I work with are comfortable using race as a descriptor. Which usually would be not a big deal, but the girl in the desk right by mine shares my name. And heaven forbid my youth should remember my last name. So the following scene is frequent:

Youth: I have an appt with K
Reception or other worker: which K?
Youth: uhhhhhh
R or other W: K or K
youth: I don’t know
R or W: does she have short red hair or long curly dark hair (I normally wear my hair pulled up no way for my youth to know it’s long or curly really)
Youth: uhhhhh

My immediate supervisor and I have begun ruffling feathers because we actually describe me to youth and coworkers alike (because yeah I’ve been with the agency a year and they also can’t tell me from the new K) as the black one.

15 09 2011

There was a great SNL skit on this topic, I think Jamie Foxx was hosting, and everyone in the office was describing a new employee as “the tall one” or “the one with the great smile” until Horatio Sanz said, “Oh, the black guy!”

When people first come to the office, they tend to ask for “the white lady” and we all know that’s me. It only bothers me if I feel like we’re at a point where they should know my name–and then not because they’re describing me by race, but because they couldn’t be bothered to remember who I am.

15 09 2011

Oh me again because apparently I haven’t taken up enough of your comment space today. I also relate to the family photo thing. Sitting on my desk are pictures of my son and my nieces as well as a framed picture my son drew when he was 6. This week a coworker asked me if I had kids as he stood at my desk. I looked from him to the picture of my blond haired fair skinned light eyed boy (who coloring aside looks a lot like me and I’m sitting right next to him in the photo) and say “yes I have a son”. Unfortunately coworker had nothing else to say I was really hoping to be able to get snarky. Maybe next time.

15 09 2011

Take it away, no problem. It’s funny how some people seem to feel better, in a way, once they have an explanation. I don’t mention that my cousins are adopted. When people ask, I say they’re my cousins. If they want to be nosy, I want to make them work for it.

It also makes you realize how socially constructed race is. When I think of things like segregation, I’m like, how does that even work? There’s so much grey area. We tend to talk like there are these distinct races, but when you look at humanity, it’s not true.

15 09 2011
Vetnita in MN

As the “token” white lady in almost every agency that I have worked for, I find that if I come out and joke about being the “white girl” it breaks the ice. Funny…the only people who have ever been offended by that “racism” were other white social workers.

15 09 2011

Totally agree, on both counts.

In social work school, there was this very weird environment about how we have to validate the importance of people’s race, but at the same time don’t talk about it because it doesn’t matter. It was a weird message.

17 09 2011

You’d be surprised about the first instance, we can be white as paper. Speaking of which:

Old lady: “You’re so white! Are you from the US?”

Me: “*sighs* Nooo. U_U”

19 09 2011

You’re so white, are you from the US? That’s just odd. Though an Irish American friend of mine had to explain to someone in college that, just because she lives in Texas, doesn’t mean she’ll be dark skinned. (Really.)

Our receptionist (who is Puerto Rican) and I actually have pretty similar skin tones, though she would never identify as white. Our old intake forms included a question asking what race the client is, and if they are hispanic or not. It was interesting to see that most people didn’t make a distinction. More of that “social construction of race” again, I think.

21 09 2011

I have two jobs, both in very impoverished areas. At one, the majority of my clients are white. At the other…I did a double take when I went to meet a new client and he was white. If I can’t talk about race – particularly when it’s obvious that I’m different than my client – it would only become more of a barrier. (That’s one of the big things I learned in social work school – you have to be able to start the conversation!) Walking around the neighborhood at job #2, I’ve learned to just smile and wave when somebody shouts “Hey white girl!”

22 09 2011

When guys call me white girl as some kind of pick up line, I get pissed. But I get pissed when they call me pretty much anything.

I completely agree that we need to start the conversation sometimes, and ask clients if some of these uncomfortable things have any meaning to them. I’m fortunate that most of my clients are very blunt and straight forward in this regard!

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