I Am Not a Black Woman: One White Woman’s Perspective on the Progress We Have Made Regarding Racism and Seeing Color

I wrote a book called “Red Clay and Roses” and in the dedication for this book you will find these words:

While visiting my grandparent’s farm in my youth, an elderly African American man told me,

“If your children can look at my grandchildren and not see color, then we have made progress.”

This book is dedicated to him, the progress that we have made,

and to my loving and supportive husband, Greg.

We are, each of us angels with only one wing, and we can only fly by embracing one another.

~Luciano de Crescenzo

EXCERPT FROM MY BOOK:

            “As a very small child, I recalled being raised by someone else.  That is to say, regardless of having a mother or not, there was always a maid or a nanny.  June of 1965, while staying at my maternal Grandma’s house after my baby sister had been born, my older sister and I were playing with our dolls on the big screened porch.  A summer storm rolled in suddenly.  I had never been afraid of thunderstorms. The wind was whipping up.  Gusts sent broken tree limbs crashing across the roof.  Lightening cracked in the darkened sky and our nanny, Wylene, a great big buxom black woman who smelled of baby powder, sweat and peppermint came charging onto the porch.  I was only four years old.  She bellowed at us, “You young’uns better get into this here house, ifin you don’t, you gwan t’be struck by lightenin, and be black as I is!”  For more years than I am ashamed to admit, I seriously believed that black people had become black by being struck by lightning. I loved my nannies as much as I could love my own mother.”

I want to tell you the whole story behind that dedication.  As my mother had died when I was eight years old, my grandparents became my rock in society.  Even after we siblings had left my father and his many wives we had our grandparents for stability.  They owned a large farm on the West side of GA near the Chattahoochee River close to Pine Mountain and worked very hard there from sunup til after sunset, as most farmers do.  They became our role models, as did the people who worked for them.  We spent our weekends and summers with them.  After we had entered the foster care system, we were still allowed to return “home” to the farm for summer break and weekends.  Later, when we became residents of The Ethel Harpst Home for Children and Youth in the North GA Mountains, we were still permitted to come “home” for summer breaks and Holidays.

There were thirteen of us grandchildren and we worked on the farm alongside of the hired hands, who were mostly black people, African Americans in the rural community.  My grandmother had started a horticulture business because she had a green thumb.  My uncle had built her greenhouses and our jobs were to root cuttings, re-pot plants, pull weeds, water the shrubs, greenhouse plants, and vegetable garden.  Kate and Isabelle, two black women (I say “black” because that is what they called themselves at that time.) who worked with us, taught us all that we needed to know about how to work the business.  Of course, being a working farm, there were animals that we were taught to tend and slaughter and even though the men did most of that work, we were taught how to process these plants and animals into food.

I recall the big dinners my Grandmother prepared.  Dinner was the noontime meal and supper was the evening meal.  At dinner, grandmother would spread out large platters of fried meats,  bowls of fresh vegetables, trays of biscuits, and cornbread onto two old wooden doors tabled across saw horses that had been set outside in the orchard.  Big trays of freshly baked cupcakes and other goodies would be brought out for dessert.

Everybody dined together, but the black people had their own dipper in the water bucket and the white people had their own dipper in the same bucket.  Even as a child I recognized the nonsense in this practice, as the two dippers went into the same water bucket.  What was the point?  Also, the black people had their own silverware and plates that were collected, washed and kept separate from the white people’s dinnerware.  These were tiny indoctrinations, but pertinent in a young formative mind.

As we grew up in the foster care system and the children’s group home we had so much more exposure.  Finally, long overdue, the schools integrated in our community in 1971, 106 years AFTER the Civil War ended.  Yes people, just forty two short years ago we were allowed to mix at school.  In our foster care, we had one family with black house-parents, and there were fourteen of us every color of the rainbow.  We were Korean, Vietnamese, white, and black children all living happily under one roof.  The couple was old and we had started tending to them more than they were tending to us.  Then one day, something disgusting happened.  We were all out waiting for the school bus.  A convertible car came whizzing past, did a u-turn and came back by.  The white teen-aged boys in the car threw paint filled balloons in our direction, called out racial insults, and sped away.  We were all splattered with multi-colors of gooey paint.  It was my first experience of being on the receiving side of racism.  The social workers came and moved us to other homes.

When I arrived at The Ethel Harpst Home in Cedartown, GA, the place was all white, but shortly after my arrival The Sarah Murphy Home (a black children’s home) integrated with our home.  We did not think about skin color.  We had missionaries from all over the world coming to talk to us about their faith (whether Buddhist or Christian), sharing their artifacts from other countries and speaking to us about other cultures.  They taught us to appreciate each other.  I value those experiences.  They taught us how to paint in watercolors and oils, throw on a pottery wheel and work all manner of arts and crafts.  I tutored younger children in writing, reading and math, so I got out of kitchen detail in the afternoons after school.  We assisted and cared for each other, regardless of skin color.  These troubled children became closer than family to me.

As I matured into a teenager and young adult, I became more and more involved in the Civil Rights Movement.  I lived briefly on a commune where folk from all races gathered with their babies, made flower leis, baked bread, lived off the land, smoked pot and listened to rock and roll and soul music.  We protested with signs that read “Flower Power”, “Make Love not War”, and “Black Power” long after it was no longer fashionable to do so.  I married, had a child, got divorced and went back “home” to my grandparent’s house.

A friend from Cedartown had come to visit with me.  We all sat around the dinner table and we heard a vehicle drive up.  The dogs began to bark and my grandfather rose from the table and went to the front door.  My grandmother was expecting a man to bring a rototiller to work her garden.  My grandfather called out from the front porch, “Ma!  Your nigger is here to plow your field,” and slammed the door!

My girlfriend and I sat at the table, and our mouths dropped opened.  My grandmother went to the bedroom to fetch her purse to pay the man.  My grandfather came back to the dinner table and sat down.  I got up and went out onto the front porch.  A tall, older black man was standing there with his hat in his hand. “Sir, I am terribly sorry my grandfather spoke to you in that manner and slammed the door in your face,” I said.

“Young lady,” he calmly stated, “I ain’t nothin but a nigger, I been a nigger all my life and your grandfather, well, he ain’t never known me as nothin but a nigger.”

“Yes, well, I would still like to offer you an apology on his behalf.  He was simply rude and I am embarrassed for his behavior,” I said.

“Look here little lady,” the man said, “If your children can look at my grandchildren and not see color, then we have made progress.”

That man’s comment has stayed with me for the remainder of my fifty three years.  I will never forget it or the look of resignation on his face.  I did not ask his name and don’t suppose I will ever know it.  But he was a worthy man deserving of a dedication.

I married again and had two more children.  Much to their grandparent’s dismay, we sang songs with our children like Ray Steven’s, “Everything is Beautiful”.  They had sleep overs with children of all races and the Church we attended with them was fully integrated in a section of society where that just wasn’t the norm.  When they left the integrated parochial school that they attended, and started into the public school system, they were still appalled at the racism they witnessed.  I am proud of my children for being appalled.  My stepson, a young white man whose father was a military brat, is also not inhibited by race.  He has begun to date and race has never been an issue.409246_4211954171447_1408324814_n

This is Tiffany Lemieux McKissic and her husband Marcus, their two lovely children, Aurora and Xavier.  They live in Michigan.  My daughter met Tiffany when she attended MSU.  They became best friends.  They are a beautiful colorblind family.  Most of my children’s friends are colorblind, and that, in my opinion, is a good thing.  That is progress.  It has been slow and it is not without some pain in growth, but it is a good thing.

303342_564472456919678_1884902535_nThis is my granddaughter, Jalina.  I am not going to tell you what race she is because it does not matter to her, and we really don’t know. Her father was adopted by the same woman who raised Geraldo Rivera.  Her father’s adopted mother was Geraldo’s nanny.  We were at Mc Donald’s a few weeks ago and there was a young blonde white lady with two small dark skinned children playing at her feet.  My granddaughter was sitting across from me.  An elderly woman, perhaps 70+ years old happened by.  The elderly woman looked at the young lady and said, “Are you babysitting?”

The young woman replied, “No they are mine, both of them.”

The older woman said, “Oh, that’s so sweet, you adopted.”

The younger woman, with a look of frustration, as she has probably heard this before, snapped, “No, I had sex with their father and he happens to be a black man of African American descent.”

It wasn’t really funny, but I could not resist the temptation to smile.  I thought, “Well said,” because it was really none of the elderly lady’s business, but having made it publicly her business, the younger woman had a right to set her straight with any words that she chose.  I don’t think anything else was said between them….except something like…, “…beautiful children.”

People ask me all of the time if my grandchildren are, “Mixed.”  “Mixed what?” I wonder out loud, but I know.

I always respond, “Yes we all are.”  I truly don’t know how mixed I am.  I have blonde hair and green eyes, but my grandfather’s mother was Cherokee Indian.  I am English, Irish and Cherokee.  My daughter’s father is German.  What would you call Jalina if you had a word for it?”  Does it matter?”  It doesn’t matter to her.  I do wish that people here in Orlando would stop speaking to her in Spanish because she, nor her father, speaks any Spanish.  It is another assumption that someone in this area with dark skin and hair and white features should speak Spanish.  People do that to her father also.

With the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case right on our doorstep, we have heard many arguments on racial progress.  Here in Orlando we have a large cultural diversity.  There are mixed neighborhoods and then there are enclaves of predominately black, white, Japanese, Vietnamese, Spanish, Indian and other races, religions or nationalities.  I suppose for some it is preferable to stay with “Their own kind,” as that is how I have heard it put.  Many simply do not want to mix.  That is fine with me also, if that is what makes them feel more comfortable, and safer perhaps.  I still think that it does lead to the perpetuation of more racism to separate like that, into little enclaves of race, nationality and/or religion.  I have heard arguments from all sides for a need to keep the races “pure” and I think that is not only ridiculous but impossible eventually.  There are still whole communities and counties throughout America where mixing just isn’t acceptable even in 2013.  Here is one example:

Rejecting Racism: Georgia High Schoolers Demand Their First Ever Integrated Prom (VIDEO)www.addictinginfo.orgLast year a biracial student had the audacity to try to attend an “all white” prom; the parents in charge called the police. This year, the students have had enough.

I am not a black woman.  I cannot know the oppression of a black woman.  Black women have suffered under oppression and racism perhaps more than any other population on the planet.  I say black women because it doesn’t matter if it is African American, Haitian, Trinidadian, African, Caribbean Islander, or Puerto Rican….it really does not.  Dark skinned women have had a struggle that no other people can know.  I can’t promise that it is over or will be over soon.  It may take more generations than I will live through.  All I can promise is progress.

~S.K. Nicholls

34 thoughts on “I Am Not a Black Woman: One White Woman’s Perspective on the Progress We Have Made Regarding Racism and Seeing Color

  1. Very well written and very much in need of being said! We’re raising our children to be ‘color blind’ as we were raised – not to see the color of the skin but the color of the personality. Matters very little what they look like on the outside, just how they are on the inside. We live in a predominately black neighborhood and our kids go to a school where they are in the minority, does that matter? Not one bit! They are going up well rounded in a not so well rounded area!

    • Thank you. I did feel that I needed to write this down for others to read. I feel strongly that children don’t see color until society teaches them that it matters, when It shouldn’t. Your children are luckier than those who are sheltered, and will be a lot more well rounded and easier to acclimate into society as adults.

      • I fully agree with you! My kids initially noticed the difference – I’ll never forget my son’s comment at his kindergarten orientation – “Mommy there’s a lot of brown kids here” I wanted to crawl into myself and hide…but since then we’ve taught them not to see skin color but the color of the personality and they truly don’t notice it at all! I sincerely hope that message is something they carry going forward – all we can do it hope that society continues to evolve!

  2. True to its “melting pot” image, America is fast becoming a country with people who belong to more than two or multiple races. So, most of them cannot even be categorized as “Bi-racial”. They are emerging as a unique American race, you may say. The future of race in America is colorful, bright and dynamic. Eventually, it is the human race that counts and not a segment of human race, either White or Brown or Black.

    That said, I suppose, Skin Color or people’s race matters in the sense that people’s race also represents their “culture” and ethnic and cultural affiliations. So, in a way, to say that people love or hate people’s “skin-color” is not necessarily true. It is what they assume lies behind that skin color that they love or hate or are prejudiced about.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that Race and Skin color and Ethnicity will always matter. But lumping all individuals into a Single Racial or Ethnic box and judging them (either with positive or negative prejudice) because of their skin color- or lack thereof– is WRONG.

    • I like the positive spin you put on that! We are a melting pot. And like Jesse Jackson said, We are also more like a tossed salad for now. I don’t want people to loose sight of their heritage. I had Civil War heroes in The Confederacy in my family history and even that is an important part of my family’s history. It is not where we have been that is most important, to me it is where we are going. I want people of all races to be able to be proud of their culture and where they come from, their roots. I just don’t want to see people judged based on skin color or ethnicity, stereotyped, profiled, demeaned or belittled. Just because I am white and from the south does NOT make me a redneck. Again, it does not matter the color of my skin or where I came from. What matters is on the inside of my soul, and how I treat those in the world around me.

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  4. I was born and raised in Chicago (I have never left…I LOVE Chicago), so the things you wrote about are way out of my sphere of experience. I’m a city girl who has worked with all different kinds of people and really never thought anything about it. No one had nannies, when I was growing up. While you were working on a farm I was having fun in alleys with my friends and playing baseball on sewer covers in the street. In the summer I was at the park, swimming in the pool and hanging out, riding my bike or taking a bus somewhere. Totally different lifestyle.

    • The rural South was eons behind most communities in the nation when it came to desegregation. The South did not integrate until 1971. The only serious negative effects in the North were when it resulted in forced busing. To get student quotas right in schools, students were transferred far out of their home communities to other schools across town and that got all communities upset. Things are a lot different in the South now. BTW I love Chicago. Visited when my daughter was at MSU a few times. Stayed in The Loop downtown at the Palmer House Hilton. She worked for the Hotel. I met young people there that said they had never been out of the city…ever. I could not imagine.

  5. I was raised with the full intention of my Dad that I would be just that much less prejudiced and that much better a parent than he – and I tell my sons the same thing – hopefully, we are doing just well enough culturally that these kinds of family improvements make huge strides these coming generations.

    My dad’s family was from the south – my grandpa, a western Kentucky tobacco farmer, told me once – “Nigger is a word for lazy, shiftless people. I’ve known alot of them in my time and very few of them were black” —
    My grandmother said she didn’t see why folks made such a fuss about inter-racial marriages, but she felt sorry for the suffering and meanness the kids of those marriages in her neck of the woods had to put up with. It seemed like they both saw what was wrong, but just didn’t see how to set it right, all by themselves…

    Although my grandparents and my dad struggled to shed the prejudices they were raised with and surrounded by, I was always impressed by the fact that they were honest about their blind spots and urged me to go one step better – not a perfect solution, by any means, but so grateful I was not raised in an environment that taught me hate as a matter of course…

  6. Hulloo again, I wanted to mention that this “race-relations” problem is also a subjective thing. It depends where people live. As someone from Chicago mentioned, it wasn’t such a big deal. In metropolitan cities it may even help–in social, professional, academic and cultural life– to be a “person of color”.

    People are too busy about other things to care about “interracial” anything. When Tiger Woods marries a Swedish blonde or Kayne West marries kim Kardashian, I don’t see race riots raging in parts of the United States…

    But race relations can become tense in smaller towns, cities and countryside areas where provincialism and tribalism may aggravate the situation. Just saying…

  7. The metropolitan areas have always been more accepting. I live in the city of Orlando and we are very much culturally diverse in comparison to rural communities and small towns. My dad in Lagrange GA freaked out when one of my younger sisters was hanging out with a black guy. They wren’t even dating. Now he has black neighbors in his lakeside suburb and doesn’t’ think anything of it, but it has been a long slow generational process. He is 75 years old now.

    • All good. I do know that the American South–as opposed to its streotypical provincial image– is very multiracial, there are lots international races (as opposed to White, Black, Latino) that proudly call themselves American.

      Nikki Hayley is governor of South Carolina, Bobby Jindal is governor of Louisiana, both are Americans of Indian descent. So….nope, the South is dynamic and progressive, not provincial or tribal. 😉

  8. Wonderful post, S.K. What an amazing childhood. Really, you have a wealth of experience that most people can only imagine. I appreciate your thoughts on race relations and its complexities.

    We’re about the same age but I grew up in upstate New York. Still, parents (including mine) would have heart palpitations just at the thought of their daughter dating a black man (funny, nothing was ever said of the reverse). There, ignorance was born out of true ignorance: In my high school, there were only three black kids and they were all cousins. I used to wonder in particular about the loneliness of the only black boy. He ran track and I would often see him running through my town, alone. I remember feeling very impatient with prejudice: how can you judge someone you don’t even know. But my family thought I was the one who was ignorant.

    Living in California for over a decade was freeing in that I gained knowledge and experience being with people from places and cultures different from my own. Now I live in the south (Tallahassee), and racial lines are deep and long. When my family used to visit, they would always remark about how many black people live around here. Both my husband and I would just sigh, but it didn’t take long for us to notice, after we moved here, that there is some sort of “separate but equal” mindset that lurks just under the surface. In California, everyone was mixed up together. Here, in north Florida, everyone is friendly but we go our separate ways. Nobody seems to mind, but it makes me uneasy. We can look at census data and see that we’re becoming more diverse racially. My workplace is diverse with African Americans and Indian Asians, and Asians, and Middle Easterners. It’s not the extent of the diversity. It’s whether or not we care. It’s whether or not our relating to each other only begins when we enter the workplace and ends when we leave it.

    Like I said, nobody seems to mind that we go our separate ways when the workday is over, but it still makes me uneasy.

    • I found that to be true with the Islanders here in Central Florida. Everyone gets along in the workplace, but socializing is cliquish. The African American girls don’t click with the Islanders who don’t appreciate being referred to as African American. They are black as we would have said in the 60s-70s, but they don’t clique. We are very culturally diverse here, but it is slow to let go of useless tradition. I am glad to see cultures hold to useful tradition that brings family and friends together in celebration, but it pains me to see tradition where old wounds lie. The younger people here are so much more open and accepting, but even then it is cliquish.

  9. A very enlightening post. I was born and raised in Chicago. But marriage took me to Nashville TN the home of my spouse and my job transferred me there.. This was not the 1940’s or 50’s but 1979. My initial experiences in the South were not pleasant. I was a northerner, female, black, Catholic and holding a supervisory position. If truth be told, if your ancestors have any roots here in America during plantation times, in all lightly hood, you are “mixed”. It is all so convoluted because of the liberties that were taken with slave women. I don’t believe that recognizing that someone is different from you is a problem. The problem comes when you believe that difference makes you better than that person. What children need to be taught is that every person has worth regardless of what they look like, where they came from or what they believe.

    Thanks for the visit and the like of my post “I’m Pink but My Anher’s are Orange”.

    • Excellent point. I whole hardily agree! I want people to keep their uniqueness and their traditions. i also want them to get along and not be cruel or unkind.

    • Thank you. I was highly influenced by the people I met while orphaned, it was such an impressionable time. It was also a childhood filled with social happiness despite the traumas.

  10. Taught high school 33 years Miami Dade County, Florida. We are 80% minority and over 50% foreign born mostly Caribbean. Mixed race is so widely spread that racial distinctions continue to evaporate among young people. My own grandchildren are various combinations of African American, Haitian, Cuban and Italian.

    • I believe that is how it will be eventually everywhere. I also don’t believe that is a bad thing. To the contrary. There are elitists who want to maintain a “pure” race. Over time. I don’t think that will be possible. It is different though in many communities throughout America. Like Rochelle, GA, where people have held fast to tradition, and immigration is not so very prevalent or noticeable.

  11. I loved this post. So many thoughts. . .and I will have to ponder. I about the same age as you, and when we moved to Dallas when I was a child, there were signs marking “colored” water fountains and such. I don’t really remember it, but I remember being appalled by the some of the racist remarks I heard my teachers utter. Not that racism doesn’t exist in the north. I think , too, of all the parallels to gay rights–since I have a gay daughter (who will be getting married in about a year) a gay sister, and many gay friends and acquaintances.

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    • Thank you for reading. It was a while ago since I wrote this and I have another grandchild. It is strange that he is fair skinned with blue eyes and bright fine hair. They share the same father, but with the gene pool, who knows the phenotype that will appear. My granddaughter broke my heart today when I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She said she wanted to be a white princess. She’s four years old, and already she’s affected by the media, and the white society I am part of.

      • It is sad. But media affects even adults, so yes, you’re right about its impact on her.
        Mixed-race-ethnicity families are interesting because one never knows what the children will look like. and they can look one way at birth and be quite different when they grow up.

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