Let’s Talk about Race, Baby: A White Girl Experiences Minority

As Black History Month dawns, I thought I would write some honest reflections of race relations from personal experience.

That shouldn’t be a problem, right?

In 1999, my husband and I, both white as pound cake with vanilla sauce, moved with our baby son to Washington DC’s Capitol Hill, a neighborhood just east of the US Capitol. We lived there for 10 years. A hatred of long commutes dictated that we move near the Capitol. A limited budget meant we bought a house in a “transitional” neighborhood, which is an euphemism for long-time African-American.

We lived one metro (or subway) stop past the one where all the white people got off.

Which leads me to my first observance on minority: You don’t notice when you’re in the majority. White people are almost always in the majority. We walk down the street thinking,  “Oooh, I like those shoes in the window…A bagel sounds good right about now,” not “I’m white.” But you notice when you shift into the minority. You’re suddenly very aware that you’re white when your face is the only white face in a sea of black.

You stand out. I know that people referred to me as the white lady (hopefully they said “lady”). I was often confused with the few other white brunettes they knew. People I didn’t know already knew who I was and which house was mine.

Which is what African-Americans experience as just a small part of their daily lives.

Standing out is difficult. I think the one who felt it the most keenly was our son, who at one point was the only white boy in his elementary class. His classmates were, with rare exceptions, not mean to him, but nor were they welcoming. He wasn’t invited to birthday parties. He wasn’t included in basketball games after school.

Add hundreds of years of injustice and misunderstandings and I began to understand why African-Americans are often so focused on racial issues and white people just don’t get it. For many of us, we have never had the experience of being in the minority. It just doesn’t compute.

But it goes deeper.

I hope I’m not stepping in a big pile of metaphoric doo doo when I say: Black people are loud.

Individual African-Americans may vary, but as a culture, African-Americans have the volume dialed up above the white norms. This is in itself just a fact, but it plays out in how we relate to each other.

I cannot tell you how many times in the first year of living in a primarily black neighborhood I heard yelling voices on the street and rushed to the window, sometimes with phone in hand, pulse pounding, adrenaline flowing. Angry voices. Very angry. Perhaps violent. I would look out and see not only a shocking lack of violence, but, from all appearances, friends having a good time. A loud time, but a good time.

Let’s break that down. I did not rush to the window thinking “There are black people out there being black and I’m frightened of that.” My body reacted before my brain processed the noise because, like other white middle class people, I had been raised in an environment where people simply did not yell unless they were losing their temper. In African-American culture, I learned, the more you enjoy someone and the more you agree with them, the louder you let that be known. This happens in church. This happens with loving parents and children. And it happens between friends.

Because I was unfamiliar with the culture into which I’d moved, I misinterpreted the cues. My brain had enough knowledge to understand differences in culture intellectually, but it took some months for it to sink into my involuntary reaction system.

If our reactions are so ingrained and subconscious, how are good people on both sides to understand each other? It takes work and time and a willingness to be uncomfortable.

Of course, just writing “black people are loud” means the sentence is written from a white majority perspective. After more than a decade living around African-Americans, my perspective shifted. I now find white people distressingly quiet, even boring.

I miss black people.

I’m curious, and would love to hear in the comments, how black people interpret white lack of emotion.  Do we seem like we don’t care? Snobby? Uninterested? What?

Charles Murray writes in his recent Wall Street Journal article about the growing cultural divide between classes, a cultural bubble in which there is little common ground. His research focuses on white people, but there is certainly a cultural divide between the races as well. One reason I chose a career as a journalist covering movies is that they, along with sports, give us common ground, something we all share.

I did not set out to experience being in the minority on some sort of quest or idealistic hope to heal race relations, no do I think I have it all figured out, but I am so grateful for the perspective my time on Capitol Hill has given me and the little closer it has brought me to understanding my fellow Americans.

In the coming month, I’ll be adding posts about my number one, very bad, absolutely worst, no-good racial experience, the intersection of safety and politeness and race, and what my African-American neighbors taught me about grace and God, along with other adventures.

Please be gentle with me.

*Photo by yoohoojuju on Flickr Creative Commons and is not me, but some other random white people on Metro.

About Rebecca Cusey

Rebecca is a lead critic and editor of entertainment at Patheos. Follow her on Twitter @Rebecca_Cusey

  • Christa

    This has nothing to do with a personal experience, but it does have to do with movies. We went to see Red Tails last weekend (despite some flaws, it was a great movie and very enjoyable). The one thing I remarked to my husband about was how nice it was to watch a movie chock-a-block with black actors (very good actors, I thought–easy on the eyes too) with nary an F-bomb to be heard, plus there was actual praying to Jesus! In a Hollywood movie! Whether the movies are made by whites or blacks, when modern black people are portrayed they are still seriously typecast into narrow bands. In fact one of the movies being previewed was “Think Like a Man” and the preview was foul. Maybe I am just getting prudish in my old age (38) or having kids has made me more sensitive to bad language or maybe there are better movies out there that feature black actors and I just go to the movies too infrequently to see them.

    As to your point about black people being loud…in my college choir (completely white) we were singing some spiritual and I remember our choir director admonishing us that we were singing like Lutherans and we needed to be singing like Baptists. What she meant is that we needed to be singing like black Baptists. Somehow, I don’t think we ever managed to do it.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Haha. Our choir sings lots of spitituals, thank God, and we have a sister who can bring the glory, but I often look over the (mostly but not all white) congregation and, with love and amusement in my heart, think “how can all you white folk just be sitting there listening? Don’t you want to leap up and shout?”

  • bill comer

    Hi Rebecca.

    Your article is all blessing. It gave voice to my experience of what is now going on eight years of life in the ‘hood. Warm smiles crossed my face and a co-worker was moved to ask why (I’m not much of a warm smiler these days”, I guess). I can’t imagine living in a neighborhood that lacked broad diversity and especially black people. Loud but loving speaks the culture’s truth better than any stereotype with which I was heretofore familiar.
    Thanks again.

    Bill

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Loud and loving…I like that.

  • Sara K

    I love this and I look forward to the series. Now that we’ve adopted a black child, we’re becoming more aware of these issues.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      And he is a cutie. I hope to meet him someday.

  • Tara Edelschick

    Thanks for starting this conversation, Rebecca. I’m inspired, so I’m gonna join you this month is writing about race – as a White mother.

    I’m often wish that there were Black women contributors to this site. This month, especially so.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      I do too. I was so thinking that.

      Can’t wait to read what you write.

  • http://www.trinityweddingsandevents.com LaKesha Bankston-Glover

    What a delightful article! As a black woman who attended white private schools (St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes–Alexandria, VA) it was nothing to be considered the ‘Raisin in the Milk’. Being the minority has been a way of life, but I did always wonder what would happen if the script was flipped…and here today I find this post.

    In high school it was funny and annoying at times to have my white friends so captivated with my hair…countless questions of how often it was washed, how I styled, etc. But over time we grew to love and understand each other because we shared the fact that all the girls got a monthly period, we shared the same crushes, enjoyed the same music. At school we were a melting pot, but at the end of the school day we returned to our isolated communities.

    I believe that the separation of our races is a curse that America has carried for far too long. Thought is never given to our commonality of being human. We as a people are so conditioned to never crossing the line and most of the time allowing our fear of the unknown to keep us boxed into what turns out to be false beliefs.

    Thank you for sharing your observations and I look forward to reading your other Black History Month pieces.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Thanks so much, LaKesha. Hair is a big deal, isn’t it? We did have the flip experience. My daughter had blonde hair and all her little girl classmates would touch it and twirl it all the time. Standing in line, sitting in the classroom, everywhere. They were all little, preschool and kindergarten, and it was so cute and natural and innocent, but she did get tired of it sometimes.

  • Patricia

    I am Black, I moved into a transitioning neighborhood 16 years ago. My neighbors were quiet, and almost invisible except for occasion movement of their drapes I barely saw them. They were unkind to my daughter on more than one occasion.
    She was deliberately run over by a group of white youths on bicycles, who claimed it was an accident, but it wasn’t. I witnessed it from my porch. Several of my neighbors had confederate flags in their windows and I live in Chicago.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      That’s terrible, Patricia. Ugh. Ugly.

    • Donna

      Patricia brings up a point we as the majority may choose to forget, but her daughter has now learned that white people are quiet and mean. How sad that this little girl could not feel safe on her own sidewalk . . . that is just wrong!! This is what we forget when we as the majority feel lumped in with bad white people – to this little girl we are all the same. I pray that she will learn to look beyond the mean people in her past, and choose to see individuals. this breaks my heart

  • Kathy Tuan-Maclean

    Thanks Rebecca for the thoughtful post–I’m going to write about race too. Like Tara, reading your article really emphasized to me again that we need a Black woman writing on this site (along with a few other uncovered demographics!)

  • http://mycogds.wordpress.com Amy Hansard

    Rebecca:

    My boyfriend sent me the link to your article and I found myself smiling and nodding as I read because I have had very similar experiences. I’ve often thought of writing my own blog about this subject, but have always stopped short. Maybe I will write it now. Many white people really don’t understand the differences. I will definitely keep up with your blog.

    Take Care,
    Amy

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Thanks Amy.

  • Karen Burke

    This was lovely. It is so refreshing to hear white people talking race! I remember trying to convince a friend from college that the white guy in traffic wasn’t thinking about her race because he didn’t NEED to – he’s white. Unless he is drawn outside of his comfort zone, he will never need to think about race, or think about HOW he thinks about race. I am white and, while for years I lived in a building where whites were a small minority, I live in a neighborhood that is predominately white now. Although, it is still Chicago. (Shocked at enraged at the woman who lived in a neighborhood where they fly confederate flags) But I do miss the diversity, the easy, day to day contact and exchange across cultures. My daughter is bi-racial and I consider it a loss for her as well. For my white sisters who open their arms to black babies – PLEASE educate yourselves, don’t “raise ‘em white” – get some black friends! Seek out diversity, open yourself up to the conversation – (even if you DON’T have any black babies!!! You and your white children will be richer for it).
    The identity issues are so deep and cruelly impacted and perpetuated by a dominant culture that doesn’t get it. So. You touched a nerve.
    I just have to say, among my black friends, (and among my white friends too) I am definitely the loudest person, and always the quickest to get angry. (smile).
    You could also find a site that is geared toward African American women and post there – perhaps in response you would get that voice you are longing to hear.

    • Teena Donnell

      Great article; I will be passing it along to some friends.

      As the mom to 3 adopted black boys, I’m always looking for cultural experiences to broaden our entire families point of view.

  • Karen Burke

    clarification: not engraged AT the woman living in the hood where they fly confederate flags and run-down her daughter. Enraged FOR her.

  • Matt

    Thanks for writing this. My co-worker sent it to me, because I’m moving with my wife to a predominately black neighborhood in Chicago for similar reasons to yours. I have no worries or concerns: I’m a social worker who spends all day every day in and amongst the black community, and I happen to have black god-parents. I understand and appreciate the culture, and seek it out. It’s my mother-in-law who’s “concerned”. It’s just sad that coming from someone who LIVED during the civil rights era IN CHICAGO, nonetheless, clings to antiquated ideas. Chicago is super-segregated. The neighborhood I’m moving to is actually a pretty awesome, well blended community, and happens to be 4 blocks from Obama and Farrakhan’s homes. And yet, all our white friends think we’re moving to the “ghetto”. Oh well, their loss!

  • Miriam Cheney

    This is a great article. I taught in LB, CA, for a few years, in a school where I was often the only white person in the class. I had to laugh at your “Black people are loud” comment. Those girls of mine, with their purses and gum and chewing gum and exuberant style. I understand why you miss that loudness. It was funny, too, how I’d go to a party within my own community and think, “Man, white people all look a like.”

  • Angela

    Rebecca –

    I LOVED THIS POST. I am the only white child in my family. All of my siblings are adopted and are black. Because we wanted to raise them with a strong sense of culture we moved to a predominately black neighborhood and I was raised basically as black child. Which was great actually. I never noticed anything strange about it until I was an adult and moved to LA.

    I was for the first time in the white majority but I felt like a minority. I was so uncomfortable in my upscale office building at my new job because there were no other black people there.

    I realized then – that though I had always thought of myself as being more black than white, at least culturally, I had not actually experienced the alienation and prejudice that my closest friends and family had experienced. It was so enlightening for me, but because of the taboo and because it is not a largely shared experience, I couldn’t discuss it freely.

    Anyway – I said all that to say – I am so glad that you chose to tackle this topic. It is great to hear people talking about race respectfully, honestly and without fear.

    You made my day today!

  • Mary D.

    Very insightful post! This is the first time I’ve ever read something covering the issue of white being a minority. Very refreshing read!

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  • Tara Edelschick

    I think it’s really important to remember that White people never experience being a minority in the same way that non-White people do. Here’s just two examples of why:

    1 – Non-white people, by necessity, nearly always know more about White culture than Whites know about theirs. So while we may be a minority, our neighbors will not be as ignorant of you as we are of them.
    2 – When we are in the numerical minority, we still live within a larger culture whose institutions are nearly all controlled by a majority of White people. So we have systemic power that non-Whites almost never experience.

    None of that changes the fact that being a numerical minority for the first time in one’s life will be a completely new experience, and sometimes a very painful one. And I understand that Rebecca is not saying, “Oh, now I know what it’s like to be Black in America.” It’s just that I know from my own life how hard it is to truly accept the degree of non-knowing I have when it comes to being White. And how offensive it can be when we talk as though we know.

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  • http://zemragforum.wordpress.com/ Zemrag

    Hello….absolutely great post and I totally commend you on taking the time and having the guts to lay this out and open the forum for discussion.

    As I stated in a tweet, my only issue are the two generalizations. Blacks are loud and whites are quiet and boring. Though I do understand you are speaking of your experience. It is stated as a conclusion you reached.

    I submit it is more of the locations in which you have lived. In many neighborhoods, white, black, mixed, well to do, working class, etc. You will have loud, boisterous activity. Often it is more of a difference of class, not race.

    I have lived in many, well to do, upper to middle class all black suburb neighborhoods, that are silent as church mice. I have also lived in predominantly white working class neighborhoods, that are constantly filled with children screaming, adults yelling in homes, and from home to home…dogs barking,etc….all through the night…..

    Again, just my only issues, with article.But that is nothing, and I wish and hope others will take the time and have the guts to write about experiences and be open to civil discussion on issues not only, race, but other politics as well.

    GREAT JOB….!!!

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Thanks so much.

      I’m glad you commented because you bring needed complexity to what is a very complex problem. One of the issues of DC is that it is two cities occupying the same physical space. One city is highly educated, highly driven, wealthy, A-type white (and a few other races mixed in) people who come from other places with a determination to Make a Difference and Make a Name for Themselves. Occupying the same physical space is the long time African-American community, many of whom are multigenerational, many of whom are poor or working class, most of whom the education system completely failed (more on that in another post). They have roots in the city that the transitional white folk never will. And, it must be said, that many, but not all, of the African-Americans who grow up in the actual city and work hard and prosper in their jobs end up leaving the city for the suburbs in Montgomery or Prince George’s County (which is extremely wealthy in places).

      So all the contrasts are much more stark in DC than perhaps they would be elsewhere.

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  • Donna

    i always feel more at home with my latina friends because i am by nature too loud for most of my “white friends”! It may be based on location, neighborhood or etc, but give me latina friends any day – they don’t shush me.

  • Jessica

    Thanks for writing this! My husband and I just moved to a part of Chicago where we are in the minority. We moved for similar reasons – wanting to be close to work & church and needing to find reasonably priced rent.

    Our hope is that we can be part of this neighborhood, but being raised in small towns and suburbs, there is a lot of ignorance to unlearn. I’m so glad I ran across this post and I hope to glean more from your experiences as you write them this month!!

    Thanks for being honest & vulnerable!

  • Regular Joe

    Thank you for the insightful article, and being willing to violate modern taboos like saying ” X people are Y”. Modern thought seems to forbid valid generalizations.

    I guess I am writing to take issue with some of the typical PC assumptions I see in the article and some comments in response. One such: differances are neutral, you say po-TAY-to I say po-TAH-to. Its hard to argue that there is an absolute scale of value wherein a baquette or tortilla or loaf of good old Wonderbread can be ranked as absolutely better or worse than each other…these are mere tastes embedded in peoples and cultures. But, assumptions that social mores like lowered self restraint / emotional voluablility (blacks are loud) are neutral are not wholly justifiable, unless one would also accept that their corrollaries in increased interpersonal violence, or decreased social order which leads to poverty, are neutral. Put plainly, an increased probability of shouting at the screen in a movie theater corrolates highly with an increased probability of shootings at that same movie theater.

    Another such typical PC assumption seen in the comments would be that the very extensive racial segregation of American residential patterns is somehow due to an unfortunate misunderstanding, or some irrational bias or emotional abberation of hate, something that would go away if we all just tried to get along and get to know each other. Now, getting along is great, and obviously modern America is a historical marvel of diverse people getting along with minimal friction by any historical standard. But, even the most devoutly PC, diversity speaking, Obama voting liberals tend to live in just as segregated communities as the less devout, often more segregated (see Portland, Hipsters and Manhatten, Liberal Elite, or Atlanta, black elite). Portland OR is the whitest large city in America, and probably the one where the word Diversity would poll the highest favorable associations. Why? Because people’s decisions on where to make their largest single financial investment and where to raise their children is very practical, and things like crime rate, and quality of schools (i.e. student performance and orderliness, not nice buildings and hi budgets) drive it. And these data points are quite differant between differant people groups. Plus, people are by nature tribal, and by nature enjoy the comfort of peers rather than the alienation illustrated by Rebecca’s article of being odd woman out. These things are irreducable portions of human nature and rational self interest, and along with a study of history provide little support for the idea that if we just change our minds the rest will follow, that we’ll ever live like ebony and ivory side by side on the piano keyboard (missing a few hues of materials there). In a free society, where people voluntarily associate, and choose where to buy houses and send their kids to school, extensive diversity will inevitably mean extensive segregation and inequality.

    Sorry, not an uplifting perspective, and also, contra some comments I’m sure to get, not a hateful one, merely one rooted in data and realistic appraisal. Not inspiration, just truth.

  • Karen Veazey

    So appreciated reading this honest take Rebecca! We’re living in Montgomery, AL for just a year and I’m thoroughly enjoying being the only white girl most places I go. After I hit upon *why* I remarked to my husband that black people are loud, and they laugh a lot. My family, white to the core, behaves the same and we’re always getting looked at sideways when we raise a ruckus in public. It just feels like home here.

  • MarkH

    My brother sent me your post after our discussion about an NYT quote from Viola Davis, about her role in “The Help”. Which was largely written from the point of view of a white woman crossing segregation to use her privilege to tell another story, that would have been otherwise made invisible. That story is usually silenced, but is well known to us whose grandmothers were those maids, or that Uncle who was lynched in uniform in the streets of New York City, as well as other soldiers in Mississippi, for daring to walk on the same sidewalk as white people, or some foolishness.
    “Red Tails” was a good, but sanitized movie too. But after all, some ground had been covered by the earlier HBO film, and whatever history one could gleam if you had been raised by “black old school” parents. So Loud. Yes, Love Hot Sauce (Check out the video Black and Jewish…see how many insider references you can count) Definitely Yes. Love, Heat, Sunlight, Hot Drumming, Cool Jazz, Biting Spoken Word…Chill Activism. Believes in Black Ieshua, more than White Jesus, because of the history and tradition of those of us, who like our religion in the old fashioned way before it left Africa, in Aramaic, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, keeping people from stoning other people (Pre-Racism, Pre-Genocide, Pre-Race Based Chattel Slavery, pre-Colonialism, pre-Crusades, Cross-burnings, and Trails of Tears, Witchburning…)
    So when the black ace in Red Tail is talking about praying to Black Jesus…there are those of us who were raised in that Black Liberation Theology tradition.

    If your son had played street ball basketball with his black school mates, among ourselves we tend to play “no blood, no foul, rules” like most of the Black NBA learned to play. Basketball is not a no contact sport, your supposed to make the shot, even getting slapped in the arm or face by the defender. That in fact is one of the referents for “in your face”. “in your eye”…if you made the shot. And you don’t call the foul as a point of honor, from mere contact. Your son, might have gotten an insiders view of how one deals with all the forms of racism. Our literature recognizes 6 types, Two Personal, Four Institutional…Your polite phrase “transitional neighborhood” describing the fact that the racial demographic is changing, either by “gentrification” (rich white folks movin’ in) or “white flight” to wherever they go, until the neighborhood becomes trendy again. There goes the neighborhood if one of those property value lowering loud black people moves in.

    What seems like “neutral” market forces, are often Types 5 or 6 forms of institutional racism, by which Type 5 (Illegal but profitable racial discrimation is occuring like Redlining) or Type 6 (Not illegal but still producing the highest body count in terms of disproportionate levels of violence, disease, and deaths, most often called Sociostructural Violence).
    Sociostructural Violence makes hardworking people homeless, and the people who put them on the street billionaires. It’s not personal, just business, its not discrimination, its market forces….
    What was once done to us minorities because of race, is now being done to the majority for the money. Making some people civil rights advocates without knowing that Martin Luther Kings Bounced Check Speech was rebranded “I Have A Dream” so much easier to dream than to get paid when the check bounced.
    Saying Poverty is a form of Violence, because it isn’t random, and it isn’t becausae you’re kind of people are lazy…Who Would Jesus Foreclose on?

  • Amy

    I was just did a Google search for “only white woman in the neighborhood” while trying to help frame the experience I had. I could have written the same thing about the metro stop (mine was Benning Rd). I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate you sharing your experience.

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Thanks so much, Amy. I felt like there was so much more to say, it’s pretty complex. But I bet you’d understand.

  • E

    Hi, I have always felt out of place in all white schools. I myself am white. I think that my ideals match more with those of black people. I have recently become a target at work by my mostly black coworkers. I am the minority. Do you have any advice?

  • http://google june

    I am White & I wished I did not have to be subjected to comments that my African American coworkers say such as “Your People” or “Look at what Our People did now”. I was raised to be good, fair and open-minded because we are ALL GOD’S People. I was raised during Integration and I always stood up for classmates that some Whites would call “Names”. I have always Hated Racist remarks & it is SOOOO Hurtful to have to be on the receiving end, because I ask “Why Me?” But it appears that the Human Race feels that just because I am White, that MY feelings should not be affected. I do Pray and am a Believer in GOD & I just pray that not only my coworkers, but no matter what race a Person is that they ask GOD the next time they open their mouths to remark & laugh at such hurtful comments, that they ask themselves, “If the Shoe was On The Other Foot, Could I Wear It?” I don’t believe Any One of Us was born into this World being able to ask for any particular Race, Sex, Size Preference, ETC, ETC, ETC—–Thanks for being Here to allow me to vent.


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