Trying to patch together a cohesive story about my experiences of whiteness and race makes me feel a little bit like a kindergartener making her first collage. I picture my clumsy hands reaching around a wooden picnic table grabbing random pieces of stuff— a noodle, a piece of yarn, a straw—and trying to make all the pieces fit together. The end product is no work of art, not something to be proud of, but it is something. And there I am, holding up a soggy piece of construction paper, with a crooked smile that says, “see I tried to tell the story. Will you accept me, because I am trying?” I think a lot of us white folks feel this way—like children, vulnerable, exposed and partially informed, incompletely aware—when we start to talk about our own whiteness which is probably why it doesn’t happen very often.
As I spin through the rolodex of memories, there are times when my whiteness comes into sharp focus. There are these moments when I am acutely aware of what whiteness is and why it matters, like when I change schools in 7th grade and become a “minority” for the first time. And there are other times when whiteness just fades into the background—a discomforting static sound plays as all the melanin seeps out of the landscape and I am surrounded by sameness. Everyone and everything is white, so I just don’t notice it any more. This randomness and lack of continuity makes me uncomfortable, because I want to know the whole story. I want to see how all the pieces fit together, to know the how and why of how all those experiences came to be before I start writing. I know that there is a historical context to all of my experiences—the ones where I crossed borders and other where I was pulled behind large wrought iron gates. I am not a historian and I don’t have much energy to do intense research, I’ll lay out some imperfect pieces—a random noodle here, a button there, a broken crayon somewhere in the corner—the kindergartener’s collage of my own racial memory, of what my experiences of whiteness have been and why they matter. (The collage metaphor was bad. But maybe it was so bad, it’s good?)
So, that’s how I feel about this task, but where should I begin? I’ll start with a simple (or not so simple) question: When did I first realize I was white?
I first realized I was white while I was riding in the car on the way to swimming lessons. My friend’s dad, Mr. Holden, was bringing us to the pool that day. His sky blue hulking, pick-up truck pulls into the driveway of our house. The exterior paint is chipped and battered. I throw open the passenger door, take my gym bag off my shoulder and sit down. My friend Andrea scooches over taking the middle seat, her legs straddling the stick shift.
Growing up, my parents didn’t have tons of money, but I didn’t know it. Soccer practice, swim and piano lessons, I had all the opportunities a child could dream of and then some. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I became aware of the creative things my parents would do to give us opportunities and exposure without spending money. Carpooling to the free swimming lessons at the Southwest Community Center was one of these strategies. Free swimming lessons required us to travel pretty far, hence the carpool with Mr. Holden and Andrea, from our rural homestead in Onondaga.
As the truck churns down the road, I can feel every bump and pothole. The pick-up truck feels large, lumbering and hollow, the jagged, angular frame provides a thin shell that seems to barely shelter us from world whizzing by outside the window. The truck is a bit like Mr. Holden—rough around the edges, a little beat up, sort of hollow, a tough exterior, a weak frame. He is the night custodian at our elementary school and has a really “I don’t give a shit way” way of speaking and being in the world. Rich white people might call him “white trash.”
The truck tips forward and we head down highway 175 toward the City of Syracuse. The road is steep, tombstones pass by the window, a cemetery stretches out for days across the gray monotonous sky. Tall boarded up buildings take the place of Onondaga’s sprawling cornfields. Barbershops and liquor stores emerge. Dilapidated Victorian houses with expansive porches line the sides of the narrowing city street. People with skin as dark as the soil gather on these tall, feeble porches together—watching traffic go by. Limbs hanging over banisters, black faces staring blankly at the passing traffic, children running along the sidewalk, barbecues smoke billows from backyards.
The truck grinds to a halt at the intersection highway 175 and Brighton ave. Mr. Holden grips the wheel. I can see threads of sinewy muscle along the sides of his face. Small tensions rising, muscles wrapping around the bones that connect in a big knot to form his jaw.
“Just a bunch of goddamn porch monkeys,” Mr. Holden spits out as he grips the steering wheel, his knuckles turning white. “Look at all these goddamn porch monkey’s. Get off your damn porch and get a job.” He sticks his head out the window and contorts his face and screams, “what you looking at?!?!” The light turns from red to green and the truck forward pops forward as Mr. Holden moves his foot from the brake to the gas and accelerate quickly.
“Hahahaha, look at the porch monkeys,” Andrea says and slaps my leg. She turns her head toward me, looking for affirmation. I stare blankly at her and then force myself to laugh along.
Something inside of me recoils. I stare out the window. My ten year old brain had trouble deciphering exactly what a porch monkey was or why it boiled up such feelings of hatred in Mr. Holden. What I see outside the window—the dilapidated Victoria houses and sprawling porches—takes on a new meaning. My insides churn, my thoughts halt, synapses too scared to fire. The mind registers only a break in connection—an us and them. There is a difference and there is hate and there is something called a “porch monkey.” My childhood brain is trying to process what that means.
An ineffable hatred spews out the windows of the truck and engulfs the landscape. I can see it hanging there, invisible as Mr. Holden grips the wheel and steering his busted pick up truck, speeding down residential streets, braking and accelerating, our tiny bodies restrained by black, rusty seat belts.
I look out the window and I wonder if all the black people know that Mr. Holden hates them so much. I wonder if they think I hate them too. I want to get out of the truck, but I am stuck there—feeling the engine vibrate, feeling every bump in the road.
This is what whiteness feels like.
A few weeks later, at that same intersection, the stoplight was red and my dad turned to me and said, “You see all this? Every town has a place where they keep their black people.” He lets out a long sigh and shrugs his shoulders. Something between dejection, resignation and indifference seeps out of the air squeezing between his parted lips.
Porch monkeys. Every town has a place where black people are kept.
This is what whiteness feels like.
If people ask me where I grew up, I usually say Syracuse, NY, though that is not true. I grew up in Onondaga—my most formative years from the ages of 5 to 15 were spent in a poor, rural community on the outskirts of the Onondaga Nation Territory. My early introduction to the city, to the place where black people were kept, was on the those long drives to the Southwest Community Center—where they offered free swim lessons to any kids that showed up. My friends and my brother and sister were often the only kids in the classes taught by a large black man with dreadlocks that hung well below his waist.
We were probably the only white kids within a 5 miles radius of the community center. The two of us, me and Andrea, floating there in that Olympic size pool, learning to egg beater our legs and push our Speedo covered torsos above the water. Kick your legs hard and keep breathing. White kids learning to swim while black kids drown.
The Southwest Community Center is located in the poorest part of the Syracuse. The city’s Southside some of the highest concentrations of extreme poverty amongst blacks and latinos in the nation. Rewind the clock about 400 years, when the first enslaved Africans set foot on American soil, and you start to understand how this landscape formed. Slavery set in motion a momentum so fierce it would shape the landscape the city forever—the lynch pins of oppression and social isolation persisting for eternity.
Syracuse, like most urban areas in America, has history etched into it’s landscape. The timeline looks like this: slavery gave birth to Jim Crow. Jim Crows became redlining which morphs into predatory lending and economic collapse and then “redevelopment.” It’s the dispersing and containing of disposable black and brown people under the guise of development and progress.
It’s also white kids in pick-up trucks learning about “porch monkeys.” It’s free swimming lessons that black kids in the neighborhood don’t attend. It’s misplaced guilt and blame. It’s a hazy anger and fear that some of us learn about from the time we are young, and can only start to make sense of with lots of time and distance.
And yet life continues.
A post script—sort of
GOD is a Group Of Drunks.
Fast forward 24 years from the moment I learned I was white, and I am sitting in a taqueria in California. Four circular patio tables and pushed together—blocking the soda machine. A 60 year old white lesbian with salt and pepper short hair and hearing aids, a beautiful thin black woman with a thick English accent wearing corvette red lipstick, a meek 40 something middle eastern house wife with her hair pulled back in a low bun, several loud talking 30 something women and a smiley entrepreneur in her early 50s are all eating greasy hot tortilla chips, scooping salsa out of tiny plastic and spilling chunks of tomato all over the tables. Everyone is saying happy birthday to one another.
“I used to fill the wine bottles with water after I drank them, so my girlfriend wouldn’t know how much I was drinking. Then I would drink the water a few weeks later,” one of the 30 somethings says. “Why would I drink the water? I don’t know. It’s just what I did. And you see, I don’t even have to explain why I did that to you all. You just get it.”
How the hell did this group of people get together? And how is it their birthday? This is what I imagine the people staring at us as they pass by are thinking.
I am learning in A.A. that when we come together around our shared inadequacies and deficiencies, and love each other unconditionally,, that all of this difference, this whiteness, this thing that can not ever be wiped away, this thing that must be deeply considered and simultaneously surpassed, stops mattering so much. We are just there together, smiling. Because God is a Group of Drunks.
Also, Trump: FUCK YOU
4 thoughts on “When did you first realize you were white?”
Your brother would say on the way to these swim lessons… “Mom, they (the porch monkeys)*can dance and play basketball… why do they have to live like that”… Very sadly I’d didn’t know what to say…yet again a very simple and perspective observation from the mouth of a child.
I cherished those swim lessons at the Southwest Center… a super warm pool and a terrific swimming teacher Chandler… a very special time.
I thought I was making you less white and more appreciative of all people. I was never afraid to associate with black people…But I’m learning to be afraid of white people now.
*Mr. Fenner… Amber’s dad
I first learned I was white when I was five and we employed a live-in housekeeper who was from Odessa, TX. She refused to eat with us at the dining table. I even asked her why she wouldn’t and she said, “No, chile, it jus wouldn’t be right.” I thought us kids were too pesky for her to want to eat dinner with and so I started watching my table manners more.
I love you the absolute most. Your writing is so beautiful, articulate and insightful. So glad to have a brilliant woman like you in my life.
This was brilliantly written. I am so glad I found your blog.