THE ONLY WHITE KID IN THE ROOM
As a white parent committed to resisting racism, what do I want for my kids?
I want my kids to know how to be the only white person in the room.
I want them to know how to do this gracefully and without calling undue attention to themselves. I want them to know how to listen and observe and be a part of the action without feeling the need to dominate. I want them to know that what happens when there’s no other white person to witness is just as real as anything else they might experience. I want them to extrapolate that experience into the knowledge that all sorts of very real things take place that they will never witness. I want them to know that race and culture are real, and part of all of our lives.
“ I was the only white person in the room . . .”
I hear stories from time to time with this phrase embedded. It stands in for many things. It marks the situation as remarkable, exotic. And it raises a question that cuts deep into the heart of white privilege: “If something happens, and there aren’t two white people there to witness, is it real?” Being the only white person in the room is often reported as a tenuous adventure into an otherwise unverifiable reality. The story in some sense only becomes real once the white person “makes it out,” and reports to other white people. I recognize in myself this internalized message that I am a reliable witness, and that reality requires my presence (or at the very least my reporting) to become fully real.
My oldest daughter was, for a good part of her elementary school experience, the only white kid in the room. I could walk onto the campus of 900 students, and total strangers would direct me to my kid.
It wasn’t always an easy experience for her. She felt different. Other people pointed out, sometimes rudely, that she was different. For a while, in her imaginative play, she used a pretend last name that reflected one of the dominant ethnicities in the school. She wanted black hair. When she brought hummus for lunch, other kids asked if it was “poo.” (I know hummus didn’t start out as white people food, but this is Los Angeles. It’s what the white people eat.) At one point she lamented that English-speaking parents were embarrassing, because we do all our private business in such a public language — “wipe your nose”, “don’t forget your lunch”, “what is that on your shirt?” — out there for God and everybody (who speaks English) to understand.
My daughter’s experience wasn’t the same as a kid of color in an all-white environment. Mixed in with all the reminders of her difference were the endless affirmations of her blond hair, the innate educational advantages of a kid who hears standard English at home every day, the economic advantages of US-born parents with college degrees, the very practical advantages in an overcrowded public school of having parents who get listened to because we are white.
But there was some suffering for her. Sometimes I regret that. I’m her mother, after all.
What I see now is that when my daughter talks about race and culture, she gets things that many white adults struggle to grasp. She observes and has compassion for cultural differences that go way deeper than food and language, like the fact that the white kids in her middle school classes are quick to participate out loud, while other equally smart kids sometimes hang back and are judged to be less engaged. She identifies cultural bias on standardized tests (such as a vocabulary question that stumped an immigrant friend who had never had reason to know the difference between “cul de sac”, “a la carte” and “a la mode”.) When a person of color talks about feeling left out or being made fun of or treated differently, she never questions the truth of that experience, or that it hurts. And she knows without a doubt that there is a very real world of experience within communities and families that include no white people at all.
For various reasons, my younger daughter will have a different school experience. It will be multiethnic, but with many more white kids and kids whose backgrounds are similar to hers in various ways. I can already see it will be easier. But I’m determined to find ways that she too will grow up knowing how to be outside the center, how to recognize the vast diversity of lived experience, and how race and culture and class and ethnicity shape so many of our human dynamics.
Being the only white person in the room doesn’t make you “get it.” It doesn’t even make you special. But in my experience, over time, it does shift your perspective. It’s certainly a different starting place than never having been there. In our family, it has made “high protein” conversations about race and racism not only possible, but a part of ordinary life.
Anna Olson is an Episcopal priest who lives and works in the diverse Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles.