Last year in my work environment I heard that I was often called “the white girl” behind my back. The reactions, “Really”, “Ouch,” and “Seriously?” all went through my mind. It also made me think. I grew up in a predominately white world. The northwest is not know to have many African Americans living in it. Growing up I had no ideas how dominate our whiteness was. I had the perception all African Americans play sports because students from all over the United States came to play for University of Oregon. There was on black student at the high school I attended, but I’m not sure he played sports.
Racism was a word I heard about in history books. I assumed the Sunday school song: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are all precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world,” meant Jesus loves the children of other countries like he loves me. I didn’t know there were people of color living in my country. I grew up in white privilege without even knowing it.
As a freshman in college I made a terrible blunder. My university was seemingly an all white school with a few Hawaiians mixed in. We had one African American professor who had just arrived to teach. My white, female professor had him come to lecture as a guest. I made a statement which was far from the truth. My professor corrected me. My eyes were opened to the reality I had learned very little about race in my nineteen years and I was foolish in light of it. I was too embarrassed to ask more questions. There was so much I had to learn, yet hiding seemed like a better alternative. I wondered how much I had to learn, but finding out seemed worse than staying in the dark.
Bob Goff, author of Everybody, Always, made sense to me when he talked about loving people who are different than us. He pointed out “we should love the people we don’t understand”. I think I am fearful of what I don’t understand. I have a harder time loving correctly because I am naive. I’ve said the wrong things before. I don’t know what to say most of the time so I tend to shy away from people I don’t understand. I think my actions can turn into racism, not because my heart is in the wrong place, but because I avoid what I don’t understand. It’s easier to make judgements about someone when I stay away from knowing them.
In the past year I worked as an outpatient nurse. For the first time I worked in an environment where the nurses were white and the support staff was not. I had amazing relationships with a few of my coworkers and some rough ones with others. For some relationships, our skin color didn’t matter. In one relationship, it obviously did as I was known as “the white girl”. Still naive to racial tensions and issues, I started asking questions.
I sat across from one of my coworkers a few months ago over lunch and started asking some questions. I was humbled to be reminded how everyone is different. Each person comes from different backgrounds and different values. Just because someone has dark skin doesn’t make them the same as someone else with dark skin. My coworker is black, and was raised with a Mexican heritage. Everyone is different. I learned so much over one lunch break because I finally asked questions.
This week, before I learned about the shooting of Mr. Arbery, I was reviewing who the voices of the Corona virus are. The voices are predominately from white males. Why? Why are other voices not present? A year ago I might not have noticed, but I’ve been around new ideas and coworkers who are different from me. I’m understanding the value of more voices. They are missing in the pandemic world we are living in. They are also coming in with great contrast over the Asbery shooting story which has emerged. I am seeing posted statements about Asbery with prayers, judgements about the shooters and discussions about white privilege. I am sad it takes something so terrible to remind us “white girls” to talk about race and to remember there are other voices in our world.. How can we change that? How can we grow in knowledge about race in the predominately white community we live in?
“Jesus talked to His friends a lot about how we should identify ourselves. He said it wouldn’t be what we said we believed or all the good we hoped to do someday. Nope, He said we would identify ourselves simply by how we loved people. It’s tempting to think there is more to it, but there’s not. Love isn’t something we fall into; love is someone we become.”
I believe loving someone means asking questions. It means leaning in and being willing to learn especially when it’s uncomfortable. To speak up when the comments and the irrational behavior are present. I may be afraid of making a blunder again. I may not know what to say, but my silence, out of embarrassment, has become the same for me as saying the wrong thing.
I was never able to fix my blunder in college. The professor didn’t make it through a second term. After that I was not in locations where I could learn or ask questions. Maybe it’s time to be in locations to learn. Maybe it’s time to forgive what someone has done to us to make us feel uncomfortable and put our privilege away so we can all work towards eliminating the stigmas of race.
Food for thought, I hope, as I figure out what this means for me. I’m back in a white nurse world where I am not confronted with the discussion of race on a daily basis. No one is going to call me “the white girl” and it won’t remind me how uncomfortable I feel about the race discussion. I think it’s time to start looking for other opportunities to learn. What about you?