Why you should care
Because there’s feeling left out — and then there’s entrenched racism.
Jody Allard is a writer living in Seattle. She writes primarily about parenting, health and social justice.
Desiree’s hand was outstretched, offering me the crumpled packet of Limon. I didn’t know what Limon was, but I saw other girls sneaking tastes of the powder when the nuns weren’t looking. I took the packet from Desiree, dipped my finger in and tasted it. It was so salty and sour, I winced as it hit my tongue.
Santa Maria was a town full of migrant workers who came up from Mexico to work in central California’s strawberry fields, enrolling their kids in school until they moved on to the next town. I was one of the only white kids in my class and I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was also a loner, different from everyone else, and my Hispanic classmates loved to remind me of that. They’d switch to Spanish when I tried to play with them, rolling their eyes and laughing, or they’d point at me and yell “White girl!” and then run away.
I saw my whiteness as a handicap … something I’d never overcome.
From then on, I saw my whiteness as a handicap, like the missing fingers on my right hand, something I’d never overcome. I sank into myself, disappearing into books and other worlds where people belonged, cherishing those stolen moments eating Limon in the church pews. My family moved to a small logging town in rural Washington state when I was 12. The move came as a relief; I’d been angling to get out of Santa Maria for years, and the whiteness of our new home felt comforting.
There were only a few Black kids in my new school. I never wondered what it was like for them, never spoke up when people called them names. I wasn’t interested in standing out; I had friends for the first time, and no one called me “white girl.” One day during history class, we broke into small groups to discuss affirmative action. “Racism doesn’t exist anymore,” I said. “Affirmative action is punishing white people for being white. It’s reverse racism, like how Mexican kids at school in California made fun of me for being white.” No one argued, nodding in agreement that what I’d said was a fact, like the sky is blue.
I’d never been to the South before moving to Charleston, South Carolina, where my husband was transferred by the Navy. I didn’t believe anyone actually flew the Confederate flag or thought that the South would rise again, but I was wrong. If you asked people — white people — you’d learn that the South was poised for a comeback. I wasn’t sure what they meant or if their plans included a return to slavery, but I also didn’t want to ask.
The first time I heard someone use the N-word, I figured I must’ve been mistaken.
My husband and I lived on a Navy base a few miles outside the city. The closer you got to the center, the whiter it got, until there was nothing but white people. The grand, historic homes that filled Charleston’s old town were almost entirely occupied by white people, but just a few blocks away, the neighborhood changed abruptly. There were no historic homes, only shacks, some with tarps covering holes in the roofs, and from there stretched Blackness all the way into the suburbs. I did my grocery shopping at the Piggly Wiggly. People were friendly and welcoming, evidence, I assumed, of Southern hospitality. So the first time I heard someone use the N-word, I figured I must’ve been mistaken. After the fifth or sixth time, I knew I wasn’t.
The racism was blatant, but my silence in the face of it forced me to confront my own. It hit me that every schoolteacher I’d ever had was white. The nuns were white. I may have been taunted and teased as a little girl, but I always saw myself reflected in the faces of people in power. I thought I was the good guy because I would never use a racial slur, but when someone else did, I never spoke up, not in high school and not in line at the Piggly Wiggly.
My marriage didn’t last, and soon I found myself on a plane back to Washington with three kids and $147 to my name. My parents didn’t have much, but they paid for our tickets home. I knew what it was like to be broke, but I’d never felt trapped by poverty until I was too poor to leave my husband. As the plane climbed, my thoughts drifted to the Black neighborhoods in Charleston I used to drive through. All I had to do to escape discrimination was move somewhere new. Where could the residents of those neighborhoods go?
I wondered how I could have complained about reverse racism and claimed that racism was dead. I had no idea what the hell I was talking about, and I certainly didn’t know what it was like for people of color. I was too shy to talk to them, afraid of colors I didn’t understand and of being labeled different again. All those years spent crying reverse racism, I had been racist. I was still racist.
I was shaken from my thoughts by a flight attendant offering me a drink. The soda I ordered was predictably sweet, but for the first time I noticed the bitter taste it left behind.