I am white and so is my family. My husband is 100% Italian, first generation (his parents were both born in a small town in Italia) so there is an ethnic component to my family now. I am comfortable being white because I have known no other way of being. It is important to me.
2) Where do you live? If you have ever moved, whether to another city or the other side of the world, please tell us when and where, and the ways the cultural differences between the places shaped or made you think about your identity.
I grew up in Providence, RI. I had lots of Jewish friends, as the upscale neighborhood where I lived was predominantly Jewish. After my parents divorced, my mother moved back to her hometown in upstate NY, and I visited her on school vacations. Because Providence is a city, there was more of an opportunity to mix with different ethnicities there than in Mom’s town.
I traveled the world as a girl with my father, and had an opportunity to observe differences between America and other countries: I was frightened by the poverty I saw and intrigued by the different ways of living. In Belize, for example, I had the privilege of dining with a Mayan farmer and his family. They lived simply, in huts with no doors, dirt floors, no furniture or appliances. The farmer’s wife cooked our tortillas on an open fire pit situated in the middle of the floor.
These experiences made me aware of my fortune being born white and American. These identifications ensured freedom, access to public education, fairly unlimited career and life choices. I came to appreciate this access from my travels, instead of take it for granted. However, I also witnessed a simpler way of life, one centered on survival rather than accomplishment and entitlement. There was an undeniable appeal to this way of living. Ultimately, though, I was glad both to be aware of these differences and of the access I had because of my race and nationality. My awareness of other cultures instilled in me an ongoing curiosity about other lifestyles.
I attended college in upstate NY at a small, private university with few African-Americans. I started dating my husband freshman year. After graduation, we lived in Philadelphia and a predominantly all-white Chicago suburb before we moved to my husband’s hometown of Lewiston, NY (a suburb of of Buffalo).
3) How diverse was the neighborhood and school you grew up in?
Although we were not wealthy, I lived in a rich neighborhood occupied by wealthy families, many of them Jewish. My public elementary and high schools were very racially diverse. In these settings, I hung out with girls from my neighborhood. I was the only non-Jewish person amongst friends. I attended a private Quaker middle school. There was only one African-American boy in my grade. Because I was not wealthy, I did not have many friends.
4) When did you first become conscious of your race or ethnicity? Please describe the context or a moment when you noticed you were different in color or language. It could be a scene with strangers, the park, school, work. Could have been subtle feelings you recognized or a blatant attack of bigotry. If it was a season or chapter in your life, tell us the impact it had on your sense of self, confidence, or emotional development. Can you share a bit about the fear, loneliness, longing for acceptance?
I felt race differences most keenly in elementary and high school, which had higher percentages of African Americans. I would have liked to become friends with several African American girls in my class, but never had the guts to approach them because of the hostility I sensed. I assumed they rejected me because I was white. In high school, I liked an African-American girl because she asked as many questions in class as I did. I wrongly assumed this commonality meant we could be friends, but she made it clear outside of class we were different.
At recess, while the African-American girls played double dutch jump rope games, I stood nearby, watching enviously along with the other white girls. My group even set up a double dutch game next to the African-American girls, but we never matched their finesse, as emphasized by their snickers and eye rolling.
5) Do you consciously gravitate to certain company? Are you more comfortable, more at home around people of your own ethnicity? Have you observed a social or behavioral tendency in your own people group you would rather not perpetuate?
I consciously gravitate towards whites because of the hostility I sense from African-Americans. White acquaintances have made racial slurs, which I did not respond to either negatively or positively. This type of behavior makes me uncomfortable, and I step away when I can.
6) Are your most meaningful relationships with people of your own ethnicity?
7) How much does racial affinity give you a sense of belonging compared to a shared faith or interest? Think about the groups you are part of: writers, homeschoolers, mothers, hobbyist, artists, colleagues, church. Would you rather spend time with those who share your cultural food, tradition, and values or those who share your interest or mission? Where do you feel the greatest ease and connection?
I feel like an outsider no matter what group I am in. In general, my responses to events rarely coincide with society’s prescribed feelings (immediate fulfillment you’re supposed to have giving birth, instant intimacy with spouse after getting married, fulfillment as a full-time mother). I desperately wanted these things, but because of unresolved childhood traumas, was unable to embrace them in the moments they were happening. It is only now, after years of treatment for depression and anxiety, and my own self reflection through my book, that I can honestly feel these things. I spend a lot of time alone, and with my family in the evenings, and prefer it that way. That is where I feel the greatest ease.
8) Do you consciously try to keep yourself or your family active in diverse circles?
9) Children seem color-blind. How have you explained color and culture to your children or grandchildren as they got older? Did you ever have to handle a situation where they were a victim of racial slight or slur?
Before we moved here, we lived in another conservative mostly white suburb in Wheaton, IL. There we went to a drive-in movie when our twin boys were small. The place where we parked was paved with small stones, which our boys continued to throw. They reluctantly stopped at our reprimand. A few minutes later, the boys observed some African-American children throwing stones, and became outraged. They yelled: “Hey, chocolate people, stop throwing stones.” My children are not prejudiced. They just wanted to get the attention of strangers and used obvious descriptive words. We were so embarrassed and explained why such remarks are inappropriate.
10) How did you set out to secure a sense of acceptance and belonging in social contexts, especially if you have faced hurtful experiences?
I usually stand alone. My husband says the aloofness keeps people from approaching me. I have been let down by many friends, so I prefer not to risk further hurt.
11) Do you feel it is not fully possible or even imperative to shed all racial stereotypes and judgments?
No, I don’t think it is possible, but I do think our society pretends it is less racist than it actually is (hence President Obama’s encouraging speech to African-American men who, statistically speaking, have little opportunity in America.) The worst word I know is the n word. I won’t say it, and get so sick to my stomach when I hear it, that I have to move away. I wish it could be obliterated from our language.
12) What has struck you the most in working through this exercise? Any closing thoughts on race and identity you would like to share?
I live a very sheltered life, and while I sympathize in theory with the struggles African-Americans face (learned about through education, media and literature), I have done nothing to help them. I don’t think I am that brave.
Elizabeth at Breaking the Cycle