Growing Up in White America

I like to joke that I grew up in the whitest part of America, though sometimes even I’m unsure of how much truth lies in my own words. I once met someone from Chicago who laughed when I told her where I was from. “Do you guys even know what diversity is there?” Then, with a wry smile, she joked, “Am I the first Black girl you’ve ever seen?”

I laughed and shook my head. Of course she wasn’t — we both knew that. But the more I thought about it, the less funny it became. Something about what she said itched deep under my skin. I’ve never been able to shake away the feeling completely.

When I think about my childhood neighborhood, I can’t remember one Person of Color who lived on my street. All I can remember is the Asian man who lived a few blocks away who kids made fun of because he didn’t celebrate Halloween. I grew up going to the school that was known for having the most diversity in the district, but there still wasn’t very much at all. My classes were overwhelmingly white and full of overwhelmingly white ideas. I remember a boy once jokingly made a KKK hood and paraded through the halls wearing it. Someone in my history class once wore black face as part of a presentation on civil rights. When a new club called “Young Educated African Americans” started meeting, students asked why there wasn’t a club for white people. These actions and comments hardly seemed to phase anyone.

Was it because we were young? To an extent, I believe that’s true. I don’t think any of us truly understood the weight of the things we did. We grew up in a school system that taught us racism ended when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous speech, the same school system that didn’t teach us about Japanese internment camps or Native American history. We grew up with parents who never taught us better, maybe because they were never taught better; we were stuck in the cycle of living in white America.

It wasn’t until college that I started questioning these narratives. I became friends with people from all different backgrounds, and the more they told me about their own life experiences, the more concerned I grew. When I was growing up, why hadn’t anyone ever talked about modern racism and the institutions surrounding it? Why didn’t we talk about different religions, different cultures, different outlooks? When I compared their stories to my own childhood, things that once didn’t feel so out of place suddenly felt painfully off, as if I were looking at one of those puzzles where I was supposed to find the objects in a picture that didn’t belong. I was left wondering which one was the intruder — our own ignorance? Or People of Color? Which one didn’t belong in our neat suburban society?

Once I started college, I only visited my hometown for holidays. I don’t like to admit to my family that the people there give me headaches. But the problem is that those people don’t just live in an isolated area of the world — they’re everywhere. I’ve left the county, left the state, left the country, and I can never seem to escape them. They serve you coffee with a smile and wave hello to you on the street. I’ve never understood how such nice people can believe the worst things. I can’t help but wonder if they grew up in neighborhoods identical to mine, down to every last white picket fence. Sometimes I wonder if I’m one of them, too.

I met a man in Philadelphia just a few weeks ago who had a friendly smile and talked about love and acceptance. But when the question of politics entered the conversation, he laughed. “I don’t care who wins the election anymore,” he told me. It was a popular sentiment, and I was curious to hear his side. When I asked him if he was worried about the social implications of the election, he just shook his head and said, “I think we worry too much about stuff like that when there are other movements we should focus on.”

I’m starting to think that’s the biggest problem with growing up in white America: you see the entire country as white America. You don’t understand what it’s like to live outside of it. You perceive problems as insignificant because they don’t affect your everyday life, and you don’t have to wonder how your life would change if the wrong person rose to power. You live in a world where profiling affects you positively and racial slurs are more of a joke than an insult. It’s easy to say “all lives matter” when you’ve never experienced a moment when maybe yours didn’t. It’s easy to say “I don’t care” when you sit a safe distance away from the problem, watching the coverage on the news and clicking your tongue in disapproval. If you are white, you will never understand what it means to be on the other side of the television set.

When I pointed out that as a white male he probably didn’t understand the problem fully, he shrugged and said defensively, “Yeah, that’s true, but my girlfriend is Black.”

I wanted to laugh. That’s another great thing about growing up in white America: when you meet someone who isn’t white, you get to use their experiences for your own arguments. My girlfriend is Black, my best friend is Hispanic, I had a thing with an Asian guy once. It’s as if you can step into their skin for a moment and speak for them. The nice part about it is that once you close your mouth, you get to step right out again. You never have to understand the other side fully.

And maybe I do that sometimes too. I am just a white girl from white America. I do not understand what it means to be Black or Hispanic. I do not understand what it’s like to have parents who immigrated from Vietnam or what it’s like to live without American citizenship. I have never been at the cross section of two different races, unsure of how to identify myself but very sure of how others identify me. I am German and Irish, just the right mix of European paleness that no one has ever looked at me suspiciously when I walk by or asked me where I’m really from. I’ve never been told to go back to my own country because everyone knows exactly where I belong. I belong in both America and white America, places that sometimes overlap but oftentimes keep each other in the dark.

That’s what I get for being born white. I have the ability to ignore problems that have to do with race within our society. I can laugh it off, shrug it off, explain it all away. That’s the funny thing about privilege: you even get the privilege to acknowledge that you have it or pretend like maybe there’s no such thing as privilege at all. Being part of white America is like you’ve earned an exclusive membership you never had to ask for, and most of the time you don’t realize the benefits you get from it. When you don’t have to look the problem in the face, you can pretend it doesn’t exist. And when you get caught up in your own America, you can ignore the idea that there’s any other version at all.

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