My (First) Story of Racism
Looking At Our Lives Through the Lens of Race project
This is Sarah Miller’s story:
The first time I remember realizing there was a negative value in our society attached to being Black was when I was abut ten years old. My family had recently moved to Baltimore and lived in a neighborhood that was pretty much exclusively White. The neighborhood was divided by Roland Avenue: to the West were wealthy white houses and to the East were less well-off houses. But pretty much everyone was White.
However, Baltimore is a city that, then, was about 75% Black and so the public schools reflected this demographic. My parents had chosen Roland Park because of the public elementary school there. They could choose Roland Park because they are White.
Throughout my elementary and high school years I was always a racial minority. This did not faze me either way and I did not give it much thought. It did not really occur to me why all the Black children arrived at school every day on buses but did not live next door to me. The principal, vice-principal and many of the teachers and administrators were Black and made it clear that they had equally high standards for everyone. I don’t think they drew attention to or from race.
One day, I was standing in a store near my school with my mother. This store, Tuxedos, was run by two kind of cheesy White men (Jewish, I later realized). My mother was talking to the person at the counter who said to her, “I can’t believe you send your children to that school with those children.” My mother responded that she sent her children to that school because it was one of the best in the city, and we left. After that I realized that there was different value and experience attached to my skin and the skin of my friends.
I feel fortunate that I grew up in a home where social justice and equality were stressed. I really don’t think I learned overt or covert messages from my parents about differences in people except that we were all equal. There was no expectation of who we would date. My dating a Black, White, Jewish boy was of no consequence to my parents. What mattered was that they didn’t honk outside our house, that they came in and met my parents, and that their last names were presented to my parents.
I remember my father telling me about a time when he was in the Army in North Caroline and picked up a Black service man who was hitchiking. He said that they stopped to get something to eat and saw that the counter in front of the building said “Whites only” and did not serve Blacks. My father said that he stood next to his companion and said to him, “What would you like? ” and then proceeded to order for them both. I remember being proud of my dad and taking away that it was important for me to stick up for the person who can’t do it for themselves for whatever reason.
I spent my elementary and high school years in close contact with Black kids. I mostly listened to soul and R&B music. However, almost all of my close friends, to whose houses I went, were White and lived in my neighborhood. This changed somewhat in high school. I grew up very comfortable around Black people while being pretty aware of the discrepancies in treatment and accomplishment.
I was not a very good student and so was not in the advanced classes with all my other White friends in 7th and 8th grades; I was in the regular program with mostly Black kids. But when I went to high school I was placed in the A program, which was predominantly White, while the B program was predominantly Black. I remember trying to figure out how I got there and wondering if it had to do with being White and from Roland Park. I’m pretty sure it did.
I went to college in Indiana to a small Quaker liberal arts school. Blacks represented the national percentage — about 12% — but that meant that only about 100 of them. I felt so out of place and confused to be in predominantly White environments. I quickly knew almost all the Black students and they are some of my closest friends today but it was a strange bridging experience. Most of my White friends did not share my comfort level and I bridged my communities. I think ultimately it was good for the White students but at times awkward for all.
I began having the feeling then that I have now that I don’t really fit anywhere. I am White and grew up Protestant but that identity group does not really hold for me now. I am very comfortable with Black American culture but clearly I am not Black. My skin grants me automatic membership into a group that I don’t want to claim: White Supremacy. I, like many White folks, find myself in situations with other Whites who say racist remarks because they believe that my skin means I will agree.
The most glaring example of this was when my husband and I lived in Costa Rica for about a year. We met a group of White ex-patriots from the U.S. who were the most foully racist people I had ever encountered. The n-word was a regular part of their vocabulary because it simply meant Back person. They made overt racist jokes that literally made my jaw drop. They quickly realized that they did not have an ally in me and our relationship was strained (it was necessary because they were friends of my husband’s uncle, for whom we were working). We further insulted them with our presence because we were Jewish. There were those comments too.
The other thing that blew my mind about these people was that they were incredibly kind, thoughtful and generous people — as long as the recipient was the “right’ kind of person. This experience complicated my understanding of racist who, until then, I thought could not possibly be kind.
Another situation in which I feel a lack of it is that nine years ago I converted to Judaism. I now strongly identify as Jewish, but I pass in the non-Jewish world and so also hear my share of anti-Semitic comments that are intended for a colluding audience. I have been told that I am not “really” Jewish because I converted and that I do not “look” Jewish. While I know what they mean, why they think this, I am offended and indignant. However, I feel that because I have the luxury of not growing up with the anti-Semitism that my husband took to be normal, I have an obligation to speak out every time I hear it.
It was only in the last five years that I began to realize that these themes that I saw as solely personal were being tackled by Whites and others in a professional and educational capacity. I took a class during my Masters in Social Work program called the Institute for Undoing Racism. It was only five weeks, three hours a week, but it was revolutionary for me. We read about the history and myths about race and racism. We delved into White identity, we delved into ethnicity and how whites threw theirs away to become American. I really began to explore in an explicit and public way my Whiteness, what it affords me and has afforded me, and how I feel about it. I was so incredibly excited by this class and could not get enough of it.
I then did my final research paper for graduate school on the development of White racial identity attitudes: 1) Contact; 2) Disintegration; 3) Reintegration; 4) Pseudo-Independence; and 5) Autonomy. The states cover a naive “color-blind” attitude, an overwhelmed “blame the victim” antagonistic attitude, an attitude in which White racial identity begins to be integrated and understood, and the final stage in which one fully accepts and understands one’s White racial identity. It was fascinating and very challenging to many in our class.
I have to say that while the topic can still make me uncomfortable and re-examine new elements and old elements of White race identity, it feels so good to me to do it, to be doing something with what I have thought about and cared about for so long. I still cannot get enough of it even though at times I am exhausted by the struggle. There was a time that I felt guilty abut being White and having all of my un-earned privilege; now I see it as a gift that God gave me to challenging me to become a better person and so that I can do something good in this world. The privilege of White skin opens all sorts of doors to me, but it also affords me the luxury and privilege to be instrumental in dismantling racism. That is so exciting to me.
Last year I attended the Peaceable Schools Institute at Lesley University for the first time and it too was revolutionary. For there I met other White folks like me! There I met other White folks who talked about White race identity and racism in a clear and articulate way. They were just so inspiring for me. And I realized that there is a place I belong and that there is a sizeable community doing this work. Now I seek out any form such as this to further expand my mind, to grow and meet other allies. I just love this work and know that it is what I have to do in my life.
I do not for one minute mean to imply that I do not or have not had racist thoughts. I do and have. Growing up in America dictates that all people — regardless of their race — we all have racist ideas and thoughts. It is what we are taught and no one is immune. However, I feel that I have actively worked to undo and unlearn these thoughts and ideas and I cherish every opportunity to work on myself more. But I am proud of the fact that I have done a lot of work and embrace the challenge with all of its discomfort.