One summer evening, the camp I attended assembled its teenage girls for an Olympics of sorts. We were divided into our units of cabins, and challenged to send up the girl who best satisfied quite random categories of characteristics or capabilities.
From the entire pool of nearly one hundred contestants, I won whitest stomach.
Suffice it to say, I am white. And I’m white in a way that doesn’t stop at the translucency of my skin. I’m white in that I can also satisfy so many of the stereotypical, cultural trappings of whiteness.
I grew up in a two-parent home. My father worked a single, full-time job. My mother had the option to stay at home, which she took. We belonged to a country club, and went skiing most winter weekends. I went to a summer camp, where summoning the whitest stomach was not an awkward game.
The first black people I knew were either taxi drivers in Boston or the Huxtable family on television. I cheered mightily for the Georgetown men’s basketball team, almost uniformly black. On a family trip to Bermuda, my sisters and I, all under 10 years old, nearly stunned a black bellhop to silence when we began singing along to the Bob Marley song playing in the background.
I had wonderful history teachers. I learned about the Constitution’s “three-fifths compromise,” read “The Killer Angels,” and studied the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I absorbed the American Dream doctrine, and heard it lyricized in Martin Luther King’s iconic speech.
I always understood those dreams to be aspirational, but concrete. The plot lines for a reality that could be achieved through positive and plucky self-determination. I never considered the linguistic foreboding that a dream is something to wake up from.
The messages of my upbringing included the mantra that all men (sic) are created equal. Within that framework, I accepted that the nature of my associations with black people were statistical anomalies best to ignore in polite company. The point to focus on was that in America, we eventually get things right. In America, we don’t discriminate. In America, we benefit from an equal playing field and an equal encouragement to get out there and get ours.
It’s uncomfortable to consider that maybe, we have more work to do. That maybe, because of my (very) white skin, a system is tilted in my favor. That maybe, I operate with a blithe oblivion to prejudices so practiced they are recognizable only by those who suffer from them.
I appear to have relied on my personal discomfort with having to confront such a possibility as an excuse not to. I’m embarrassed by that. It also strikes me that my unchecked permission to indulge a world view based on my own emotional preference might be evidence, itself, that the world skews my way.
Then another black person gets killed by another police officer, another death in such a series of deaths that I have to Google the names of the dead. I forget their faces, but somehow remember what they faced. Loose cigarettes and a chokehold. A sidewalk and a police SUV. A broken spine. If not dead by an officer’s hand, then forced by it. A pool party. A turn signal.
It would be more comfortable to think that these, too, are statistical anomalies. That the lessons to be learned are lessons in cooperation, submission, calm. That we, and the systems in which we operate, are as race blind as we say they are.
But maybe there is proof in the pattern. Maybe there are lessons to be learned by the decision-maker on the other side of the decision. Maybe it’s worth noting that the people insisting that race is circumstantial do not have to manage the circumstances of their race.
I do not know if a single answer exists. I’m willing, however, to be part of the uncomfortable conversation. I’m ready to recognize that I am not the authority on someone else’s life experience.
It’s about time, I tell myself. It’s not too late, I’m hoping. It’s the least I can do, I admit.