I’m the Whitest White Girl in America…and I’m Listening

I am the whitest white girl in America. My hair is so light that my eyelashes are invisible unless coated with a heavy dose of mascara. “Have you been crying?” is a question that my own mother routinely asks when I don’t have any makeup on to add color to my nearly translucent face. Don’t even get me started on my invisible eyebrows {insert your favorite joke, here}. I’m that alabaster. 

white
My Whitest White Girl Mini-Me

I’ve never really thought much about the privileges afforded to me due to the color of my skin.

When I think about who I am, the description “white girl” doesn’t even make the list. Sure, my whiteness is a part of me, but it has never really personally defined me. I haven’t needed it to. Probably because I’ve never been shamed for it.

Likewise, I’ve never felt proud to be white. I’ve seen so many women of color associate the word proud with the color of their skin, which is wonderful. I’ve just never personally related to that conviction. When I reflect upon my accomplishments and successes, being white has never consciously been a factor. But I’m sure, in many ways, it has been there all along.

Being white has undoubtedly helped to open doors and pave roads on my life’s journey thus far. I just haven’t been acutely aware of it. Ever. If that sounds offensive or ignorant in any way, it’s not meant to be. I’m a smart person who also happens to have an inordinate amount of empathy. I’m simply being honest.

But, recently, without warning, my whiteness was brought sharply into focus when my daughter picked out “the most beautiful Barbie in the world.” A black Barbie doll.

My six-year-old daughter shares my coloring. A mini replica of the whitest white girl in America. She had saved her money for months to buy a coveted toy. Despite the almost overwhelming presence of white dolls on the store’s shelves, her choice was a “beautiful” black Barbie doll. The significance of the moment literally stopped me in my tracks.

Why? Because my children are not routinely exposed to diversity. Though not by design, our family does not live in a very diverse area. My three offspring are all blond-haired, blue-eyed, and fair-skinned. The vast majority of their peers are exactly the same. In our small, suburban town the local population is decidedly WASP-y in its overall, outward appearance.

I grew up with diversity. Not everyone was white like me. My classmates came from a variety of backgrounds. My high school had a curriculum devoted to learning about other religions and cultures. Not to mention that my grandparents and parents shared stories – both good and bad – teaching me about their first-hand experience with race, ethnicity, and cultural biases. My Dad’s experience in the Deep South working on an oil rig always stands out. He was transplanted from his native Detroit for the summer – the summer of the Detroit Riots. He watched the riot coverage on the news, immersed in what he called “Jim Crow” land. The local commentary was vicious, but his host was a harbinger. “I hope you don’t think we’re all like this down here,” she told my Dad. But the reality was that Brown v. Board of Education had only taken place thirteen years earlier. Biases were still very much in place.

Despite my upbringing, diversity is a topic that rarely arises in my family’s busy, day-to-day life.

My wise-beyond-his-years fifth-grader happens to have an unusually diverse group of friends given where we live, the fact of which has raised some very good questions and created great conversation. Likewise, my third-grader has definitely caught on to the fact that there are only a few non-white students in his entire grade. But the topic of diversity hasn’t gone much further than that in our home. It should. If the events of the past year have taught me anything, it’s that I’m not doing enough.

I’ve read numerous articles and memes over the years containing statements like, “dear white friends,” or “white people, do something.” At first blush, I honestly didn’t know how to feel about these statements. What could I – a Midwestern, suburban mother of three – possibly have to do with effecting change?

But, digging deeper, I realized that if a decade of parenting has taught me anything, is the fact that education and change truly do start at home.

So, now, when I hear these calls to action I’m inevitably brought back to that moment – that otherwise random, Saturday afternoon of running errands in our very white town when my daughter picked out a “beautiful” Barbie. She didn’t see white or black. She didn’t see color at all. She didn’t pass the doll over for being “different” from herself. She only saw beauty.

I’ve placed a heavy emphasis on being kind, and what it means to be a good person with my kids. But as a parent entrusted with raising part of the next generation, I can do better. I need to teach my children exactly what being a good person means, especially within the context of race, ethnicity, cultural biases, and deep-seated prejudice. It’s my job as their mother – and an ever-evolving one at that.

So, here I am – the whitest white girl in America. And I’m listening.