Friday, July 8, 2016

White For A Black Girl: A Short Observation About Skin Color

My son is nineteen. He does not drive.

....The first time my blackness was challenged was by black children in Beaumont, Tx. I went to school with lots of military children. They were every hue, and from every corner of the world. We didn't know the world we were part of was not usual. The black children in my grandmother's neighborhood told me that I 'talked proper' like a white person. I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about in those days. All I understood was that I was 'outside' and somehow different, but I didn't know how.

My son is nineteen. He does not drive.

....I spent my elementary school years in South Korea. In middle school we moved back to the USA. The white kids told me I wasn't like 'most black people' when I was at Eisenhower Middle school in Oklahoma. The black kids ignored, stayed away, or teased me, so I guess the black kids felt the same way. What do you do if everyone tells you that you are not who you are?

My son is nineteen. He does not drive.

....At Northwestern University I had people tell me they didn't 'think of me as a black person', or that when they saw me they didn't 'see color'. This was supposed to be a compliment. You see, they didn't hold my color against me. I wanted to shout, "Why do you have to pretend I am not black in order to accept me?" If I had ever said that out loud I am sure I would have offended the very well meaning people who make these statements, but perhaps I would have made them stop and think. By the time I got to college, I just wrote people off who said things like this. If you can't accept me as I am, then you aren't worth my time.

My son is nineteen. He does not drive.

...I did some wordless picture books with African American stories. The company who did the recordings had their staff come in and listen to the stories. One of the women was very upset. She raised her hand and asked, "Why didn't you get a black woman to record these stories?"

My son is nineteen. He does not drive.

So, what is the story here? What does it mean that I am not black? Well apparently it means that...

Black people do not speak clearly
Black people do not use proper grammar
Black people have a very specific voice
Black people do not write clearly
Black people are not polite
Black people do not take honors or AP classes
Black people do not read well
Black people do not write well
Black people do not have friends who are not black
Black people are not kind
Black people are not smart
Black people are not capable
Black people don't go to the top universities in the country
Black people are not lots of perfectly reasonable civilized things.

Apparently, if black people rise to some higher level, they graduate from blackness, and become honorary white people, or their color doesn't matter. It is a way of saying, "I met a black person who doesn't meet the stereotypes that I carry around in my head about black people, so he/she doesn't count."

My son is nineteen. He does not drive.

...My daughter is sixteen. She is at Governor's School West for theatre in North Carolina. On Wednesday, the mister and I went up to Winston Salem to see this show the drama group wrote. It was 30 plays in sixty minutes. The students wrote the plays. My daughter was in one called, White for a Black Girl. There were three black girls and each did a short monologue about what it is like to be a smart, accomplished black girl, and to be told that you were, in fact, white. The term now is, "You are the whitest black girl I have ever seen." or "You are a white black girl." Each piece ended with, "Is this what you want to see?" A white girl would step up behind them with white paint on her hands and put white hand prints on their faces before moving on to the next girl. The audience was quiet, uncomfortable, a little freaked out in their seats. I wondered, as I sat there, how many of the very white folks sitting around me had ever said that to a black person thinking they were paying them a compliment.

My son is nineteen. He does not drive.

I could start listing the names of the young black men who have been murdered by police in the last four years. I could call out their names and howl into the wind. I could tell about the morning George Zimmerman strutted out of his trial after having murdered a young black man, and how I lay in my bed that next morning sick with worry about the young black man who sleeps across the hall from my room. I could scream to the heavens about the executions of the two black men this week. I could demand justice. I could shout into the teeth of a screaming wind, "Black Lives Matter!" and I know that I will be met with anger from those who yell, "All Lives Matter" or "Blue Lives Matter!"
The problem isn't that all lives matter. The problem is that we have a story about those lives. The stories we tell are very different.

-Trayvon Martin is killed. The media shows him looking like what the media has decided a 'thug' looks like.

- Brock Turner rapes a woman. The media shows images of him in a suit looking clean cut and like the 'kid next door'.

So, What's the story here? What does it mean to be a black man in our society?

-Black men are inherently dangerous
-Black men are criminals
-Black men are violent
-Black men are unpredictable
-Black men need to be restrained
-Black men are scary
-Black men deserve to be treated like unstable animals

My son is a good student at Rochester Institute of Technology
My son is a sculptor
My son is a writer
My son is so kind
My son is a conscientious objector
My son is gentle
My son plays piano
My son likes to play Dungeons and Dragons
My son plans a career in 3D modeling
My son is really, really smart
My son loves Cosplay
My son is creative
My son is imaginative
My son would do anything for his friends
My son is a magic bean buyer.
My son is black.

If my son gets pulled over in a car for whatever reason, what will the police officer who pulls him over see?

My son is nineteen. He does not drive.

I've never really pushed him to learn. Truth is, I'm terrified.

I live for a day when people don't have to pretend accomplished black people aren't black in order to understand or accept them.

Tell Your Story


  1. This breaks my heart. Will we ever get there, Donna? We try, and yet I wonder if i too have said or done tbe kinds of things you mention. Your fear for your son... my sister has tbe same for her biracial, sweet, smart grandsons. Hugs, my friend, from one taking your words to heart and mind.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. We don't consider the stories we live in until someone asks us to. Examining who we are and what we do is important if we are ever to change how we do it. Be well, my friend, and thank you again.

  2. This is so good, thank you for sharing!

  3. So many things to worry about... Add this. Your writing touched me.

  4. Donna, the words you yelled into the howling wind landed in my ears. The fear and worry and anger they carry has made me feel the same. Then I noticed hope was there too. Just a little bit, like a seed. Donna, thank you for screaming into the wind. I hear hear you. I stand shoulder to shoulder with you.

  5. Donna, thank you for this poem from a breaking heart. I think all the time, the world is mad, I don't understand people, why is there so much deadly fear -- and I know that it is my privilege to ask these questions, that I don't walk in terror because I'm white and old and pretty much invisible, and my sons do drive. I hear you and so many of my friends who do not have that luxury, and I howl with you.
    Your blog is powerful poetry. I think it should be read far and wide. I'm going to send notice of it everywhere I can. Thank you.

  6. My heart longs for a day when the color of a person's skin is no longer an issue in any way shape or form. I know I am a dreamer...and i feel saddened and angered that this dream is so very very far from reality. Thank you Donna for your openess and honesty and your beautiful way of expressing how it is for you and so many others.

  7. The thing about color is that we can't not see it. We have so much societal capital built up around what color is supposed to mean, that even when we act in an unconscious way when we deal with it. The coolest thing about being a human being is that every single one of us alive today can trace our lineage back to a single woman in Africa. In fact, we can trace our lineage back to about ten thousand individuals. The difference between any two human beings is somewhere about one percent. In other words, our differences are kind of meaningless. What matters is how we deal with each other, what we expect of each other, and how we feel about each other. I wish we were all taught these very simple facts from the time we got to school. Maybe, if we grow up knowing we are really the same, we will stop treating each other like we are really different.

  8. Thank you for the power and pain of your words, Donna. Racism is endemic and eats away at our souls. I will bookmark your poem for the next time someone insists to me, "I don't see colour" when I broach the subject of systemic racism. (And I love your daughter's sweatshirt!)

  9. When Trayvon Martin was killed several years ago, I guess I had the typical reaction of a white male. I bought the argument that he was a thug? At least initially. I felt the same way when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson. I wanted to believe that the police were right and that they treat everyone with dignity. When there were two sides of the story, I gave the benefit of the doubt to the authorities. In all my dealings with police they had treated me with respect and I made the assumption that all police treated everyone the same way. In my small world, I had no evidence to the contrary. In hind sight, there was the Rodney King video but that must be an isolated incident?
    I had white bias. Ok, correct that, I have white bias. I don’t know what I don’t know.
    Over the past several years I have learned differently. Mostly because it is impossible to ignore video after video of police beating and killing black suspects. It makes me sick. Some will argue that they also beat and kill white suspects or non-black suspects. That doesn’t make it right? Also, a look at the statistics will tell you that black suspects are unfairly treated more often. Why is that? We have a problem!
    I am not sure how to fix it but I know the first step is to admit that we have a problem.
    To open my eyes further, I was telling stories at the Detroit Library and one other tellers was Danielle McGuire, a history professor from Wayne State University, She told the story of Racy Taylor who was brutally raped by a gang of white men. Even with overwhelming evidence none of the men were ever convicted. After hearing the story I brought her book “At the Dark End of the Street.” The book details case after case where black women are raped by white men who never got convicted. I thought, “No wonder black people don’t trust the justice system.”
    I am not saying I think all police are bad or that shootings are never justified but now I have my eyes open. I will need to see both sides of the story before I jump to some conclusion that is not well researched or well thought out. I know there are a lot of police officers that do an outstanding job and have great relationships with the people in their community. We need more of them.
    Bias, yes I have it, some of it conscious and some unconscious. We all have bias related to our upbringing and experiences. I am going to keep challenging mine.
    Thank you Donna for sharing. It seems we are afraid to talk about race? I am learning, if we never talk about it we will never change anything.

    1. Thank you, Jeff. We all start with what we know, but if we never learn anything, we won't get anywhere. Thank you for being willing to start that journey.

  10. I was pregnant with my son when Trayvon was killed. I felt relief that my son was white. Then, horror, as it sunk in. This motherhood and wanting to protect my child when Black mothers cannot protect their sons and do not feel relief but constant fear. I hear you.

  11. Thanks for this, Donna. We have so much to learn!

  12. I'm so sorry you and many others suffer this fear.
    Life as one of the children whose father served in the military gave me the opportunity to know many people with most skin types. I learned that there are good people and there are bad people in every race and country.
    You are the second lady of the African color who has said in my vicinity that they were shunned by the black community simply because of her lovely speech (it was labeled as too white).
    At what point will Americans realize that bad attitudes are learned behaviors just as bad manners are, and that people are all RED on the inside and can be hurt when the Golden Rule is not in practice. You remember it - Do to others as you would have them do to you.
    People who abuse their authority should be removed from positions of authority no matter if police, pastor or retail manager. Bullies everywhere should be stopped in their tracks.
    We were directed to love one another - no qualifiers were given.

  13. We have met the enemy and it is us. Knowing the stories changes things. I pray that our medium lifts its powerful voice in stories like this. This needs to be in your show somewhere.

  14. Been there. Sometimes still there. Believed the world would become a more loving place for my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren... Even disillusioned, fearful, angry, scarred and exhausted, our hearts and works must continue to respect the past chapters, revise the errors many people think are historical facts, and write other chapters about and beyond these crises. Love to you and your family.

  15. Thank you so much for this moving and beautifully written piece! Your kids are amazing young people, who will change this world for the better, as you do with your stories!

  16. Thank you so much for this moving and beautifully written piece! Your kids are amazing young people, who will change this world for the better, as you do with your stories!

  17. Thank you for the power and pain of your words, Donna. Racism is endemic and eats away at our souls. . . . .
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  18. Hello Donna, my name is Sylvia Torrey. I am an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church and a Biblical Storyteller. It is now two years after your original posting of this powerful poem, and I am reading it again. My questions to this society are different this time. This time the questions that arise for me are more political. The being questions being, How did Trump ever become President of the United States? my unsubstantiated guess is that there are numerous 'closet racist' in the United States of America. Maybe your post should be front page news in every newspaper and on every social media page in this country. This time I will attempt to post it on my Facebook page

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