Last year, at the age of 37, in spite of living and working among other races for my entire life, I finally noticed the racial divide.
As a child of the 80s, I was taught that talking about race was impolite; it meant you noticed differences. We say, “We’re all the same, after all—on the inside. Isn’t it better to be ‘colorblind’?”
But ignoring race is like sidestepping the gigantic crack in the sidewalk of society and history. We try and tiptoe over it, or worse, we pretend it doesn’t even exist.
Of all whites, I should have known better, because I can’t think of a time when I didn’t have a person of color in my life.
The first boy I ever liked in kindergarten was black. I nearly followed him into the boys’ restroom one day. When I described him to my mom as having dark skin, she asked, “Is he black?”
“Of course not,” I said. “No one has black skin. He’s brown.”
In middle school, I rode the bus for an hour, either way, to attend school in the projects because our county in Tampa, Florida, was one of the last to integrate schools.
My midwest Christian college was majority white. Some black students were browsing in the bookstore once and the cops showed up. Someone assumed they were there to shoplift.
In college, I spent six months in Uganda and lived with an African family in a village. I often confounded their assumptions. “I didn’t think you people did things that way,” they’d say. To them, I was America. More than once, I was asked if I knew President Bush.
After college, my first teaching job was in the inner city of Chicago, in North Lawndale, at a 100% African-American school. I asked my students if any white kids ever attended there. “I think once … maybe,” they replied. I got so used to seeing black faces that I was shocked by my whiteness when I saw myself in the mirror during bathroom breaks.
I lived in China for five years. For the first three, I was one of three white faces in a city of 60,000. Many people wanted to be my friend. I understood it was because I was white. I humored them, telling myself I’d be more accepted if I learned Chinese. So I spent hours studying until I was fluent. But even then I wondered about my friends’ motives in spending time with me. I wished I could look Chinese.
After China, I taught at a small private Christian school in Chinatown in Chicago. Six out of eleven students were boys. Only one of those boys was black, the rest were Asian and white. One day all the other boys showed up at school with their backpacks full of clothes for a sleepover at one of the boy’s houses for his birthday. Guess which boy wasn’t invited …
To not notice race is to not notice the way clouds affect the shifting of light in the sky. It is to pretend you don’t feel the rain pelting the hood of your coat or soaking into the hole in your boots. It is to ignore reality.
And yet somehow I still believed we were living in a post-racial, inclusive, equal society.