September 3, 2019

Growing up White in America
"This teenager was arrested for not giving up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama ..." The emcee at the Dr. Martin Luther King workshop paused his cadence to let the audience think of an answer. I missed the teenager clue and mentally filled in the blank with Rosa Parks, when he continued into the microphone, "...nine months before Rosa Parks."

My smug smile washed away. In my mind, Rosa Parks was an anomaly, not part of a bigger movement. A young African-American man shouted behind me and interrupted my thoughts, "Claudette Colvin!"

The crowd congratulated the young man's answer, and the emcee continued with the next quiz question, but I didn't hear it. I was lost in my own internal dialogue, weighing the newly-exposed depth of my Whiteness. Growing up White in America meant I knew relatively few names from Black history. What's more, referring to it as "Black history" is an acknowledgement that the vast majority of the history I learned is implicitly another color:


But growing up White in America was an education that extended far beyond the classroom.

Growing up White in America meant the way I spoke at the dinner table was the same dialect I used in the classroom. I never had to learn how to code-switch if I wanted to ascend through school or business. The pastor at my church and the news anchor on TV interpreted reality for me with the same tongue I used.

Growing up White in America meant I went on road trips in college without fearing how I would be treated at a small-town gas station. The language of a green book never echoed in my car.

Growing up White in America meant I was startled when a room wasn't a White majority. Conversations with the description, "we were the only White people there" was code for dangerous. Or poor. Or uneducated. And when I was a minority in one of those dangerous hospital waiting rooms, I knew it was only temporary. The story would resolve when I returned to the safe, prosperous place which happened to be dominated by my skin color.

Growing up White in America meant I could go through my day without thinking about my race. I could wake up, drive, shop, eat, study, watch TV, and sleep without ever being reminded that I was different than the world around me. Band-Aids were always my skin type; hotel shampoos were always my hair type; food aisles were always my food type.

Growing up White in America meant that I could walk in public with four of my fellow teenaged friends without judgment. Store clerks rarely watched us judiciously. Women never switched their purse to their other arm when we walked by. Fathers never shuffled their children to stand behind them when we were close.

Growing up White in America meant that I looked like those in positions of highest influence. Scientists were overwhelmingly White like me. So were programmers. And doctors and lawyers and CEOs. White-collar professionals (pun intended) were disproportionately White like me.

I was on Mount Rushmore, not their slave ships. I was on my currency, not their auction blocks. I was on the cover of comic books, not their mug shot tabloids. I conquered. I legislated. I enforced.

Learning about Claudette Colvin didn't erase my history, nor was it redeemed. But I did grow in awareness, which is a much better meaning of growing up White in America.

Written by Chris Paavola

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