I wipe the fog from the bathroom mirror and look at my white body. My skin is so white I can see the blue veins, like a strange spider web on my stomach and chest and neck. This is the only body I’ve ever known, handed down through generations of Northern European mothers.
I remember the stories my mother used to tell, how as children, she and her little friend would sneak down to the stream behind their Utah homes. They would cover their bodies in thick, dark mud and pretend to be negroes, something they had never seen. Then the little girls would lay down in the stream and let the mud wash off, revealing again their white little bodies.
Later, as a nurse, my mom saw a black man for the first time. He was her patient and she diligently cared for him. She washed his skin and almost rubbed him raw because she couldn’t tell if he was clean. “Things were different then,” she told me, “when people were racist.”
My childhood was different, growing up outside of Los Angeles. Everywhere I looked there were people of every color, speaking every language you could imagine. We lived in a white neighborhood and went to a white church, but there were other colors, always there, in the periphery of my memory. I do remember the riots, on the news, when I was eight. I didn’t understand, but I was afraid of those men.
I grew up as a millennial, the generation that values diversity, tolerance, and social justice. As a group, we’re not racist anymore, right? We studied Dr. King in our college classes. We elected a black president and are appalled when our grandmothers loudly suggest that President Obama is “nigger-rich.” We claim we don’t see color and nod when our partners say they’ve never seen racism.
A newly born feminist, I read the words women of color have written because I know so few in real life. Terrified of being labeled a white feminist, I try to listen, try to understand a world that I have lived in all my life and yet have never known. I learn words like “intersectionality” and “systems of oppression.”
As the supervisor of a racially diverse team, my whiteness is always on my mind. When an employee accuses me of policing her tone, I try to calmly explain that three other women have come to me crying because of her rude words. She tells me they just can’t handle a strong black woman in the office. I don’t tell her the hours I have spent trying to decide how to handle this because I’m afraid of her myself.
I drive home and I listen to white voices on the radio tell me about more riots, more protests, angry black men and women like the ones I remember from my youth. Another black man. Another white officer. My mind churns with names and places that I try to keep straight: Ferguson, Tamir, Sandra, Mother Emanuel. I come home to my white neighborhood, my white church, and my white family and all of that seems so far away.
But, I know that for so many of those who I claim are brothers and sisters, these events are not far away. And I don’t know what to do. So for one Sunday we take a break from our church, to sit in unfamiliar pews and listen to a black woman teach us what she learned from Dr. King.
Yesterday my six year old son, with the same blue-white skin and my own bright blue eyes staring back at me, told me how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made everything fair. “He was a great man, Mom. His father taught him that things should be fair and when he grew up he was brave and he made it all fair. He got all the black people to stop riding the buses. Then the white people got angry and shot him.”
As we listen to the words of "I have a dream," my son draws pictures of Dr. King with a dove on his shoulder, of black and white people eating at restaurants together and drinking from the same fountains. He searches his crayons for the right colors and carefully completes the caption, "Martin Loother Cing Made Peece."
Then I take a deep breath and we talk about privilege. I just learned this word and it sounds strange on my tongue. I’m not really sure what it means, but I feel like it is important to say out loud. “We have privilege. We have a responsibility to listen to others who don’t have our privilege because they are the only ones who can tell us what that is like.”
In these few moments before I start my day, in the time before commutes, homework, laundry, and the never ending stream of things to do take over my thoughts, I pause. And the thought comes back, the one I always push away, tuck back in, and try to forget. A question, really, “Am I a racist?” For once I take it out and look at the question, turn it over in my mind. I don’t know the answer and I’m not sure how to find out.
But for now, I’m listening. I'm listening not only to the easy, soothing words of Dr. King that are passed around on meme after meme between my white friends, but also those that are hard for white ears to hear. I'm listening to the words of those today who feel like they are unheard.