I am a white girl. That is one aspect of who I am, and though I vacillate on how important an aspect it is, I won’t deny that being a white girl, both in my home country of the USA and abroad, has a big impact on my experience of life.
I can’t remember being unaware of the weight that this particular quality holds. The elementary school I went to was the “alternative” public school in a university city that pats itself on the back for its progressive values. My formal education was a funny mix of strong progressive curricula taught by somewhat clueless, sometimes guilt-stricken white teachers (that’s how I understand them in retrospect. As a child they controlled knowledge, though rarely had a good grasp over the classroom). In high school I noticed, and enjoyed, when I was the only white student in a class. As a young adult, I roamed the hemisphere of the Americas, living in Trinidad, Brazil, Louisiana, Colombia and elsewhere. My self, my race, and how these shift meaningfully across political communities has always intrigued me.
In recent years, the way I think about being white and female has been jolted. The jolts come cyclically and sometimes unpredictably, the early contractions of the birth of something new. Mixing metaphors, my self conception, especially as it relates to my race, feels like the little silver orb in a pinball machine, bouncing up against walls, flying up ramps into new realms, and dropping down into the darkness of disappointment and shame.
The thing about being me, a white girl (and I’m not every white girl), is the ease with which I move through the world – sometimes doors are opened in front of me, sometimes hands are held out to help me up. Sometimes people smile. Most of the time I feel safe, at least as safe as possible in this world.
But I think about this ease, and the cost of it. There is experiencing life as an individual and there is experiencing life as a member of a society. As an individual, I want to be known for the qualities I have developed in myself, and for the blueprint my family layed down for me. As a member of a society, I want to be respectful of the lives and the happiness of others, of their families and histories. I want to work for our lives and our collective and individual happinesses. For me, being white sometimes means that the two lived experiences are contradictory. I think I’ll have to give something up of myself for the health of this society.
But what? Is it my eager voice that I should quiet when I’m in a group of many other white women and a few women of color, shifting my self from expressive individual to listening demographic? Is it my delicacy that I should trash, as I interpret the critics of society as personal affronts? Should I stop asking for answers from people who have their own shit to figure out?