I call it “the white remark.” Someone I don’t know too well sidles up to me and says something they I assume I will agree with because of the color of my skin. Which in my case is the paler side of German/Irish.
It happened just three days ago. I was at an exercise class. The speakers weren’t working and one of my classmates whispered to me that this exercise center used to be a lot nicer before “the blacks” started coming.
After Barack Obama won for the first time, an acquaintance that campaigned for him was excited that election of a black president meant that we could finally talk about how racist black people are. He said this as we were sitting in a room full of white people in a wealthy neighborhood of this city that has always been white and always been wealthy.
Nobody in that room had ever been denied a good education because of their skin color. No one had older family members who couldn’t get a home loan because of their race. But he was upset that the black grocery store clerk wasn’t as nice to him as he thought he had deserved.
Maybe that employee had mistreated him because he is white. Or maybe she was just having a bad day in a thankless job.
I work at a middle school for girls from the city’s underserved neighborhoods. Most of our students are African American, biracial, and more frequently these days, Latina. Often I am the only Caucasian person in a room.
People don’t mistreat me. Yep, I answer a lot of stupid questions sometimes from the kids. Other times I really have to work hard to earn a person’s trust because of the way I look. Or the middle class neighborhood where I live. But people don’t mistreat me.
After the girls graduate from our middle school, I track their academic progress to make sure they will graduate from high school in four years’ time. I travel all over this city to various public and private high schools, and even to girls’ homes to check up on them and to make sure they have what they need to be successful in school.
Once I had to stop by a black student’s house and as I got closer to her home, I could see that I was the only white person around for blocks.
I knocked on the door. “Come in,” someone called and so I did — to the great surprise of a family member I didn’t know and who clearly didn’t expect a white lady to walk in the house.
“Who let you in?” she eyed me suspiciously.
“You did,” I told her.
She continued to look at me skeptically, until along came the student’s mother. “That’s Ms. Gregg,” she explained and we got down to the business I came for, keeping a kid in school.
People don’t mistreat me.
After last weekend’s verdict in the death of Trayvon Martin, a lot of white people have gotten tired of talking about race. I see this in their comments on social media and hear it in their voices. They blame reporters or the president for making this a racial issue, or they point out how racist hip hop lyrics can be. Others have suddenly taken an interest in black on black crime.
To be fair, there is a lot of mistrust and many misconceptions on both sides of the racial divide. To be fair, there is racism that goes both ways. I don’t mean to minimize any of that. But this is all the more reason for us to continue the conversations on this painful subject. We can’t stop sharing our experiences and white people can’t say this is a black problem, or that black people are just complainers.
If you believe that, come spend a day with me at my job.
This week, after the verdict in Florida, I made another home visit and once again I was the only white face on a Baltimore city block. Two parents were setting up a plastic pool to cool off their children and other kids were playing on the sidewalk. It was hot, all the more reason for manners to be in short supply, but everybody said hello to me.
I was not at all surprised.