I was in fourth grade during the 2008 presidential election, so I was just old enough to have a basic understanding of what was going on. I don’t remember every interaction I had regarding the election details, but I do remember a moment of innocence where another student told me that the Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, was bound to win because presidents weren’t “allowed” to be black. In my head, Barack Obama had no chance. As a kid, I believed almost everything I heard, but I wish I didn’t believe that. I specifically recall going home and telling my mom that I didn’t understand why Obama even tried, for he wasn’t eligible, he wasn’t white.
I always knew I was white, but really only because I had a mirror. I knew I came from places like Denmark, England, and Ireland, but I didn’t know much more than that. My family doesn’t have any real connection to any of our heritage and I’ve never been to Europe, so that’s always been a gray area in my life. I’ve always known I was white, but I didn’t know what that implied until I went to a day camp for a week between 5th and 6th grade. I was happy to see how diverse it was, so I mentioned it to one of my new friends, to which she responded that even though there was a handful of people of color, it was still primarily white, so it wasn’t even that diverse. I was surprised by her response, so I exclaimed that I was sure that most of the world was white, so this was a good representation of all the other, smaller races all over the world.
She disagreed, saying that only a quarter of the world was white, but I didn’t think much of it because what wasn’t my understanding of the world. It wasn’t until years later when I realized how wrong I was.
I grew up in a very affluent area in Los Angeles. Houses are never sold for under $1 million, the average income is around $160,000 a year (2010), and the public schools are known for being some of the best in the state, National Blue Ribbon schools. I always felt very fortunate for what I had, but I didn’t know it wasn’t what “the real world” is actually like. La Cañada is primarily white and Asian, my elementary school only had a very small Latino/Latina population and I could count the number of black kids in my entire school on one hand. Most children were raised Christian and I hadn’t been in a class with a practicing Muslim until I was a junior. I was taught, and I’m ashamed to say that I believed, that Columbus was a hero and that Native Americans were fortunate for being “civilized” by white people. I was taught that everyone is always treated equal in our society, that there was no wage gap. I was taught that the country had completely healed since slavery and that racism wasn’t a real problem, the only real racists were some people’s grandparents and the Confederacy from the Civil War. I didn’t know if it was inappropriate to ask my Asian friends what was their heritage and I didn’t know if I was being ignorant for not being able to tell by looking at them. I grew up with countless questions I was afraid to ask because I didn’t want people to know that I knew nothing. Ultimately, I would have to say that I’ve always struggled with my whiteness.
It goes without saying that I grew up with a very skewed view of the world. I rarely interacted with children who weren’t like me, so when I first started hearing about Black Lives Matter, Ferguson, and other national tragedies, I didn’t know who/what to believe (the news, my friends, what I read online) or how to react. My heart hurt for the nation and for those affected, but was it appropriate for me to speak out? If I donated to the cause, would I come off as thinking I was above or too afraid to take action? How could I help when I didn’t understand the situation at all?
Not all of these questions have been fully answered for me and I don’t know if I’ll ever truly understand how I feel, but my immediate reactions to and lack of activism regarding those events are times I cannot redo.
I am very grateful to go to a university that is much more diverse (racially, socioeconomically-to an extent, geographically) than my hometown. I am grateful to have the opportunity to take classes like Race in Contemporary Society, for I genuinely want to learn more about what it means to come from different racial backgrounds and how that affects people’s lives through an academic standpoint. I don’t think I could ever refer to myself as a functioning member of society without having at least a basic understanding what it’s like to be someone who isn’t myself.
I hope that my children and future generations grow up with a better understanding of the world than I had and that they aren’t taught false truths in school. I hope that there are less racists every day that passes and that the wage gap between women of color and white men becomes nonexistent. I really hope that someday whiteness isn’t thought of as synonymous to intolerant and that our society changes. I am white, I will always be white, but I will also strive to live a purposeful, educated life regarding race, ethnicity, and activism.