“All you white people know each other!”
The joke fumigated the air, triggering in me an anxious breathlessness in what was already a tight and claustrophobic space, packed with four adult bodies.
I had been there for two or three months - working at a new job, in a new city on the west coast. And for the first time in my life, I began to resent the pale skin that hung from my body.
. . .
I have always struggled with a feeling of insecurity and discomfort in office spaces - they feel claustrophobic (there’s that word again) to me, as well as exhaustingly fake;
plopping adults into these tight, often emotionally sterilized or suffocating spaces enables us to revert back to adolescent behavior, as we follow order in yet another white hierarchical system, where proving your social and organizational worth to the ever powerful bosses (how much can you do for the organization with as little money as possible?) is considered a top priority, over that of your own well-being.
Before entering the workforce, I attended college in the midwest, graduating with a double major in Spanish and Environmental Studies.
As the youngest of five children (and one of the youngest cousins on both sides of my parents’ conservative white protestant families), I was desperately determined to cling to what gave me joy; averse to pursuing what held more outward value to the hyper-educated wealthy white folks around me.
I devoured all my major specific courses with a zealous fervor - indulging in the privilege it was to take courses I actually gave a damn about.
Most who hear the word double major start to look impressed, but upon learning the topics, are visibly, not so impressed.
When I graduated with these degrees in 2014, Environmental Studies was considered as a bit of a joke and Spanish was reputable for a minor maybe, but a major? Really? And paired with something weak like environmental studies? What will you do with those degrees? What are you going to do, work for a recycling company?? (something, I had, in fact, already done.)
The truth is: I had no fucking idea what I was going to do (something, as I reflect on it, that was rooted in my privilege. I knew I had financial safety nets if a job didn’t work out right away).
Nevertheless, I started to face the reality of what it meant to work in “the real world” with these degrees, and I nursed this wound of shame internally - realizing, finally, that everyone was right:
It’s fucking impossible to get a “good job” with my degrees, trying to pursue the work I wanted, without having to accept a position with a penniless non-profit, who treats their employees like disposable income.
Every “good job” out there in America, with a “good organization”, doing the “good work”, has shitty pay, little to no benefits, and bosses that value you only as much as you sacrifice.
After a brief hiatus from this work (to learn and start my own photography business), I re-entered the non-profit sector.
We had moved across the country and my photography was not going to make money during this transition. So, I looked again for office jobs, that had a mission I could believe in. To my surprise and delight, I came across just the right thing.
It was truly serendipitous. It was not a high paying position (I had come to expect that), and the job title was lacking in my opinion, but it included benefits and my husband and I were both out of work at the moment having moved across the country without securing jobs (yes, another privileged risk).
Well, all of this, led me to this moment.
“All you white people know each other!”
He laughed, in his almost constant jovial manner, unaware of the impact his words had on me, I’m sure.
I snuck a glance at the other white person in the room, but I would receive no lifeline.
How do I respond to this?
Three months in, and I am still recovering my sea-legs, in this new town and this new job; a space where my being a white woman is actually noticed, acknowledged. And not in positive ways, mostly; understandably. Though, this level of understanding would come later for me.
Earlier in the conversation, the speaker of ‘the comment’, was telling me how quiet he thought I was in the office, “We don’t really know what you’re about.”
This was actually the comment that caused me to go red in the face.
I felt extra flustered: as I was caught unawares on my way to heat up my lunch and read, taking a short break from the socially overwhelming environment of the office, which held far too many bodies in too small a space for this introverted soul.
I desperately searched for the right words, paired with the perfect cadence in my voice, to assure him, a black man, that I was a white woman who was to be trusted, and who didn’t need to explain her presence, or why she was quieter at work and in certain settings.
What further caused me stress, was the implication of his use of the word, “we”.
“We don’t really know what you’re about.”
Now, I cannot speak to who he meant by “we” (nor can he speak for other people) but the implication was that “we” included him and his predominately black team members, with whom he was close.
And when, the only white person on his team, who was also in that room with us, said, “I feel like I know Kristin,” it was met with ‘the comment’ confirming this implication to a degree: “ohh, that’s because all you white people know each other!”
The fears I had held in my belly for the past three months over my whiteness and what it meant in that office space revealed themselves to be true - I was seen as an outsider.
And so, I had started to resent my pale skin shortly into the job.
Parading my pale skin in a space where white folks were not inherently trusted caused me to move around in my body with a foreign self-consciousness. I was, by no means, the only white person there. But I was the newest white face, and evidently, already had a mysterious reputation.
(Now I can see why: I was a white girl with blue eyes and blonde hair, from the midwest, no ties to the organization. No ties to the community. Hell, no ties to the city. How is it I could walk into a black space and assume I should be trusted? I was blinded, short-sited, by my own privilege.)
Up until that point, I had worked primarily in spaces that were either mostly white, or very diverse (in skin color and language), but it was due to the students who filled that space, not the teachers (I’ve worked a great deal with ESL students over the years, mostly adult, some children, who were from all over the world. Since I speak Spanish, I started out working with Spanish speakers, but my love for languages and meeting people propelled me to do more.)
The only other job I had previously working in an American Black community was for an urban garden youth summer camp - in that space, my skin color was not overtly commented on or questioned, since my boss and most of my co-workers were white. The youth we served were not - they were mostly black, a few kids who identified as hmong, and one white kid.
(Youth, while perhaps more trusting than adults, are not blind to the facts. They could see, as plainly as adult ESL students could see, that all their teachers were white. In the years following these experiences, I would come to understand what was so backwards about those jobs and, frankly, most of my “socially justice minded” non-profit jobs. I would come to realize my role in perpetuating racism in these spaces, simply by being present and ignorant to my privilege, and the impact it had on those around me. More about that in another post.)
I started to resent my pale skin at my new job because of what it represented:
White skin - privilege - is not something that can be shed.
There were so many times I wished I could shed it.
Wished I could remove myself from the whiteness I carried.
Wished I could communicate to my black and brown co-workers and neighbors and friends (through telepathy and kindness) that I was a “safe white person”. That my presence didn’t have to feel uncomfortable for them if they would just let me show how very different and special I was.
That’s what every good white activist wants. To think that we are special. That we are the exception.
But no, we are not the exception.
We are the very embodiment of white privilege.
Realizing this, for me, was taking my first step into real anti-racism work.
And I owe it entirely to every single person at this job who didn’t let me get away with my privilege. Every single person who created space for these worthy conversations. Every person who reminded me of my skin color. And the privilege that comes with it.
“All you white people know each other!”
Can we, any of us white folks, really deny this? Are we honestly establishing ties with non-white communities? Are we going outside of our comfort zones to address racism? Or are we rooted deeply in our ways, tied to an endless string of excuses for why we aren’t really the racist ones?
TO BE CONTINUED
MY WRITING IS INTENDED TO CREATE A SAFE SPACE FOR WHITE (AND WILLING NON-WHITE) FOLKS TO ENGAGE ON TOPICS OF:
RACISM, WHITE PRIVILEGE, WHITE GUILT, ANTI-RACISM
MOST WHITE PEOPLE DON’T TALK ABOUT THE MORE INTIMATE SIDE OF RACE, UNLESS THEY FEEL IT’S REALLY REALLY NECESSARY.
LET’S CHANGE THAT BY FINALLY CARRYING OUR WEIGHT IN THESE CONVERSATIONS, A WEIGHT THAT FOLKS OF COLOR HAVE HAD TO BEAR FOR FAR TOO LONG.
PLEASE, ENTER THE CONVERSATION!
BE CRITICAL, YES PLEASE. AND, RESPECTFUL.
With A Genuine Thank You for Your Time,