Growing Up White


It’s funny how racial identity works. Especially whiteness. Especially when you’re taught, implicitly and overwhelmingly, that white is the norm.

It’s funny how it’s not until you’re older—when you take classes on critical race theory and start understanding your own white privilege—that you realize how many moments from your life provide case studies in the twisted system of racism in American society.

It’s funny how, when your professor asks you to start thinking about those moments in class, they begin to spill out onto the pages of your notebook:

I’m in my junior year of high school. It’s 2008, late in the evening as the election results are rolling in. Barack Obama has won the presidency. My phone starts buzzing; I look down. It’s a text message, one I’ll receive multiple times that night as my high schools peers forward it to everyone on their contact lists: “Us white people better get to the cotton fields. The negroes are in charge now, and they’re going to make us their slaves.”

I’m ten years old, in fifth grade. My friend Kate*, the daughter of Chinese immigrants and the only Asian person in our whole school, has invited a group of classmates (all white) over to her house for a birthday party. I’ve slept over multiple times at Kate’s house and learned to love the homemade Chinese food her mother cooks (even though she always apologizes to my mother for not being able to cook “American” food for me). For our peers, however, it’s the first time. Kate’s mother brings out platters full of food she’s made—tofu, shrimp with their heads still on, whole fish. As soon as she leaves the room, it starts: “Ew! What’s that?” “This is gross!” “You eat that!?” “Where is the normal food?” “I dare you to touch it!” One little boy picks up a shrimp and throws it at a girl. She screams, “Ewwwwww!” I look over and see Kate’s face. She’s trying not to cry.

It’s a Friday night. In the South, that means everyone is at the high school football game. For me, as a member of the high school marching band, it means I am on the field, playing the fight song as our team comes onto the field. The Wando Warriors—named after the Wando, the Native American tribe who once lived on the land where our high school now stands. The cheerleaders hold up a large banner emblazoned with our mascot, a stoic Native American man with feathers hanging from his hair. The football players break through the banner as we play the fight song—some in feather headdresses, some brandishing tomahawks, all with tribal face paint on their cheeks.

Somehow, none of us—as we sit in our homerooms called “powwows,” watch our daily TV announcements named “Tribe Talk,” and read our school newspaper, The Tribal Tribune—think to ask about who the Wando people really were. Or why their current status is “Extinct.”

We are in Ireland in 2014, for a family reunion where my grandfather hopes to reconnect to his Irish roots. Tom, our van driver, takes an exit, saying, “There’s something I think you all would like to see.” We arrive in a small Irish village called Moneygall and, suddenly, there are American flags everywhere. “It’s Obama’s ancestral village,” Tom explains—and, sure enough, there is an Obama Cafe and a Barack Obama Plaza. We stop and get out of the van to read a plaque which explains that Obama had a great-great-great-grandfather named Falmouth Kearney, who left Moneygall for the United States when he was nineteen years old. Kearney was a white man, of course. He is part of Obama’s heritage.

I wonder what the many racists back in the U.S. would say about this village of white people, so proud to claim their connection to the first black president of the U.S. I think about my two biracial cousins, standing next to me reading the plaque, who—like Obama—have Irish as well as African blood running through their veins. I wonder what hatred they have had to face, that they haven’t felt able to share with me. 

I’m back home from college. Sitting at the dinner table with my family, I start telling a story: “So today I saw this white guy at the grocery store—”

“Why do you keep doing that?” one of my family members interrupts.

“Doing what?”

“Saying ‘white’ when you’re talking about people. You are white, Abigail.”

“I know. That’s why I’m doing it.”

I’m eight years old. Two black girls in my third grade class in my public school in South Carolina have been making fun of me, following me at recess and taunting me with insults like “You’re so ugly.” I won’t realize until much later that those little cruelties came right after I had won a “Gifted and Talented Award” that morning in class, a clear and understandable reason for eight-year-old jealousy and teasing. At the time, though, almost in tears, I sit next to my (white) friend when we go back to class. The two girls from the playground are sitting close behind us, within earshot, and I hiss to my friend, knowing they can hear me, “Why are black girls so mean?”

I feel ashamed when I think of that final moment now. Ashamed, because I knew at eight years old, as I said it, that it was a hurtful thing to say. That I was using the race of those two girls as a weapon against them. That, in a way I couldn’t have spelled out then, I was doing the same thing teachers in our school did to them—connecting their race to their bad behavior, as if meanness was inherent to blackness.

Fifteen years later, I still feel the burn of shame for those words. What I have learned, however, is that guilt will not fix anything. Action will. That is why I am so committed to trying to be an anti-racism activist, dismantling the system of white supremacy that told us it was okay to steal the names of Native Americans and see Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners and mark blackness as inferior to whiteness.

Across lines of race and religion, this is the work of justice-making we are called to—especially those of us who grew up white, enfolded in all the privilege that entails.

* Names have been changed for confidentiality.

%d bloggers like this: