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.

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About Rebecca Cusey

Rebecca is a movie critic. Check out her work on Rotten Tomatoes. Follow her on Twitter @Rebecca_Cusey