Several things can be true at the same time.
She had every right to interpret my surprised look the way she did. I cried in the bathroom because I didn’t mean to be racist; a Black coworker consoled me. “That woman was taking it to extremes,” she said. Later, I would learn about the way white women sometimes weaponize their tears.
I was a teenager working at McDonald’s and I’d never seen a $100 bill at a McDonald’s before. The woman said, “now, why is my money looked at like that?” I stammered; I was sorry.
I had a lot to learn.
I graduated from high school in Tulsa in 1995. I watched the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing on my classroom TV in April of my senior year. I had not learned – not in middle school or in high school – about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. All I’d ever been told, or at least what I remember, was that there were rumors of a mass grave in the cemetery you could see from the highway.
My best friend in high school was a Native American who’d been adopted off an Omaha reservation by a white family – illegally, it turned out. Her parents were evangelicals. We met at a summer camp the church sponsored.
(Oh, I’d learned about the Trail of Tears. When you live in Oklahoma, you learn about that. It’s history, and Oklahomans are proud of their history as former Indian Territory.)
I was a teenager, a white girl, a quiet, good girl who went to church every Sunday. I didn’t think I was a racist. I barely spoke in high school. (I hated it, to tell the truth. There, the pretty blond cheerleaders all thanked “their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” whenever they won an award. I always rolled my eyes at that. The few African-American students at my high school sat at their own lunch table.)
My best friend went to a different school, and I usually dated boys from different schools. One boy (who was white but part Choctaw with olive skin and green eyes – he was dreamy) went to Booker T Washington High School, which was primarily African-American. I was supposed to meet him at a football game. I stood in a crowd looking for him. I was surrounded by Black teen boys, all taller than I was, and I must have shown my discomfort. One said to me, “don’t be scared, little white girl,” and laughed. Not unkindly.
When I went to college, I lost some of my shyness. I found friends. I studied abroad twice. I learned.
I moved to Phoenix and taught middle-schoolers whose parents had come up from Mexico, whether legally or not. I loved them. I learned.
I moved to St. Louis and taught Black high-schoolers. I learned about Pruitt-Igoe, where many of their grandparents had lived. I learned how they felt when Michael Brown was killed. I cried with them, and I learned.
I thought back on my sheltered teenage years in Tulsa. Whenever I visited extended family members in Independence, Missouri, it was like nothing had changed! And even though I loved them, visiting them made me feel like I was in high school again.
I am still learning about white privilege and Black trauma. I know it’s not any Black person’s job to educate me – I have to do the work.
I’m still coming to terms with what it means to be raised as a Christian and still believe in God when, to be honest, many evangelical Christians make me uncomfortable. I’m angry when politicians (who depend on the evangelical vote) try to block the teaching of race in classrooms – but I have to laugh, too.
How can you block what’s in all of us – all over this country – California to Tulsa and St. Louis to the Florida coast? What was in me, an unhappy white teenager; in the Black students at a mostly-white school who sat in a circle around their lunch table; in the Omaha-Sioux girl with white brothers and sisters; in the pretty cheerleaders and the tall young men at Booker T. Washington High? How can you?
How can you block our own history when we all have so much more to learn?