Understanding Being White – Understanding What it Means to be Black
In the early 1980s, I moved to take a job at Cheyney University, a historically black university, to work in their continuing education department on some early childhood grants involving training.
My immediate supervisor was Cheney’s vice president for academic affairs who had a Ph.D. from American University. He grew up in segregated Baltimore where his father was the superintendent of black schools in the city. A talented artist, he received a scholarship from the state of Maryland to study art in college, but could not attend a school there since all schools were segregated. He attended and graduated from the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, and then headed into a career of art education and ultimately educational administration. I eventually realized how marked he was by his experience as a black man – even as accomplished and outwardly successful he was.
I considered my boss to be one of my best mentors. He was wise and understanding of a young, eager educator. But I also found that he seemed at times not to be trusting of people. He would ask strange, probing questions or check behind people when I felt there was no reason for it.
One day we had traveled together to a faculty development event for another institution of higher education where he emceed the day. He did a fine job of leading the meeting and engaging the more than 100 faculty. As we drove home, I asked with whom he had lunch. He looked at me with a smirk and said, “Some white guys who really didn’t want to eat with me.” I looked at him with shock, and said, “What do you mean?” not understanding at all why he said that. He responded by saying that the first thing they saw when they looked at him was that he was BLACK and that they really didn’t want to be with him. He truly felt in his heart that they wanted no part of him, and only accommodated him because he was the vice president.
I was shocked, stunned, and dismayed. In that moment, I had an awakening understanding that his distrustfulness of white people at work and in life was born of a lifetime of being second class, of being relegated to separate schools and accommodations, to being recognized as a talented artist, but not allowed to study with white students in his home state. The scar was deep and probably unconscious, and it made my heart sick.
That experience has taught me that even when we reach out in utmost sincerity to link our purpose and cause with people of color, they may respond with suspicion and distrust. They may not believe that we will stay the course and do the hard work needed to heal the wounds of injustice. It’s the legacy that we as WHITE people must accept if we are to move forward. It will cost us WHITE FOLK something to bring this about change.
Understanding Other Perspectives
I volunteer at a charter school in West Philadelphia that has almost 100 percent African American kids attending. I help in the library reading stories and assisting children to find and check out books.
One day a young girl, probably in the 1st grade, came to me. She was wearing a head scarf as some Muslim girls at the school do. She was having trouble finding a book. Her question to me: “Where can I find a book about me?” She wanted to see story books that had pictures of girls with head scarves, that talked about Ramadan, that reflected life as she lived it.
Needless to say, in the ensuring years, we have added many books to help both the African American and Muslim students have access to literature that reflects their lives and experiences.
And by the way, the stories are great for children of every background. Good literature is good literature!
We Look Different
At the same charter school in the previous story, I was interacting with a young boy, working on an art activity. My hand was next to his, and he asked with curiosity, “What is that?” I said, “What do you mean?” And he pointed to the veins in my hand. I said, “Let’s look at your hand.” And of course, you couldn’t see any veins. I explained that because my skin was so light colored, you could see things like veins underneath the skin, and that he had them too.
It was just a simple experience of realizing that something as simple as seeing veins in your hand was new to this young African American boy. Think of all the other more profound and important ways in which his life is different than our own.