White Lady with the Messy Hair: Acknowledging Whiteness

Sometimes I am more aware of my whiteness than other times. It’s a point of privilege, I realize, to be able to completely forget the color of my skin. Sometimes. It’s always a privilege, but it’s only sometimes that I forget. Other times, I am hyper aware of my whiteness and the ways that it might be a liability or a danger to people of color. And sometimes, I am just aware because my whiteness makes me stand out, makes me different when, honestly, I’d much rather blend in.

I was at the Helen Ruffin Reading Bowl (HRRB) earlier this month, keeping score as elementary aged book nerds battled it out in a book trivia quiz competition. Nerd-dom at its finest. 

This year’s competition was held at Therrell High School, on the southwest side of Atlanta–a school that is proudly predominantly black (96% of the student body is black). I’ll just insert here that any time I go to a big Atlanta Public Schools academic event, it’s like a study in black excellence; over 70% of the students in Atlanta Public Schools are black, and they are out there making a name for themselves all over this city. At the HRRB, some elementary teams competing were a solid mix of students of different races and ethnicities. Some teams skewed whiter than most (primarily from the most gentrified areas of Atlanta). And some schools’ teams were made up entirely of black students. 

Which is how I found myself the only white person in a room of black students, black educators, and black volunteers. 

I live in intown Atlanta, so this certainly wasn’t’ the first time I’d been the only white person somewhere. I’ve also spent the last 6 years (since we moved to Atlanta) reckoning with my own racial identity as a white person, which is complicated, painful, and necessary in making strides toward racial equity. One of the results of that work is that I don’t hesitate in acknowledging Blackness or whiteness. It is a difference. Ignoring it doesn’t erase it. It just makes things hella awkward. 

So, I’m spending my Saturday morning keeping score as these book nerds do battle over very specific questions about the slate of ten books they read specifically for this competition. Obviously, the kids are very serious about this. And very competitive. 

The airhorn sounded to signify the start of a new round, so new teams were walking in, getting settled, and chatting before the reading of the rules, the testing of the buzzers, and the introduction to the volunteers.

I’d been fiddling around with my water bottle and checking my phone as the kids filed in. But suddenly I noticed that one side of the room was very quiet. I looked up and one of the teams was looking at me curiously. “Hey, y’all,” I said, offering a little wave. 

One of the team members nodded to his teammates. “See, don’t she look like Ms. Washburn?” After a little more scrutiny, they all agreed that yes I did look like Ms. Washburn.

“Do you like Ms. Washburn?” I asked warily.

Oh, yes, yes they did like Ms. Washburn. She was very nice, they reported back to me reassuringly.

“Does Ms. Washburn happen to be a white lady that doesn’t look like she brushes her hair very often, either?” (you can say lots of things about me, but that I look like I brush my hair a lot will never be one of them)

Oh my god at the clamor over that one. They laughed and agreed that Ms. Washburn didn’t seem like she was much of a hairbrusher, either. They did point out that her hair was shorter, so less messy. But still. 

Their coach looked bemused and maybe a little horrified. “They say too much,” she muttered, shaking her head. 

“Well, I did ask,” I reminded her. 

Honestly, that was the most frank exchange I’ve had in a while. Because kids don’t have a filter. To them, it was just clear that I didn’t look like them. And they didn’t see our differences as something to keep hush-hush about. They just wanted me to know they saw me, that I reminded them of someone they knew and liked. 

As I’ve told this story since then, I’ve noticed that white people visibly cringe when I get to the part of the story where I acknowledge my own whiteness–and that, for the kids, it linked me to another white person they knew (and thankfully liked). But the thing about whiteness is that ignoring it won’t make white supremacy or white privilege go away. If I don’t claim my own whiteness, I can do nothing to dismantle the systems that are causing so much destruction and pain. 

It’s a place to start. 

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