Sunday Morning ~ White Christmas
December 16, 2018
I live in a place that is mostly white: white skin, white snow, white lights on the houses at Christmas. We knew this before we moved here; there is little racial diversity in Maine, though since 1989 it’s slowly changing. There is plenty of socio-economic diversity, but racially, it’s quite white. On this island the racial diversity comes mostly from international scientists at the research lab. We took this into consideration before we moved here. We wanted our children to understand what it is like to be a minority, so after we bought our land but before building our house we went off to live and work in Samoa for two years. We wanted the kids to attend the local school a) because it was free and b) we thought it would be a good cross cultural experience. We were firm in this belief, though it became difficult when our oldest said he was scared and didn’t want to go to school. After being reassured he wasn’t being hurt (at least physically) we forced him to work it out, somehow believing he would have more compassion for kids who were being discriminated against. Who knows if this was the right thing to do, but it is the decision we made at the time. It was hard for our kids to fit in because they were small (Samoans are large people), white, and didn’t speak the language. I didn’t feel super welcome either when nurses would talk in Samoan, say my name, then all burst out laughing. The kids all managed to find their niche and did well, but years later we overheard them telling a guest who’d also lived in Samoa how difficult it was for them in school. They were threatened, hit, and mocked. They said they never told us about it because we were so sure it was a good experience for them. They didn’t want to burst our little bubbles. I wonder what decision I’d make now, knowing all this. Give up the vacation and send them to the private school? Can’t go back and do it over.
I grew up in a little mill town in Massachusetts, also mostly white: skin, snow, and first communion dresses. I think there was even less diversity there as almost everyone I knew was Catholic. There were protestants in town, of course, and I know of maybe three Jewish families. Only one family was African American. But I don’t remember any slurs or acts of discrimination. Were they present but I didn’t see it? Our neighbor, Bernie, was Jewish. I adored him. He was funny and generous and loved kids. We walked with him, we sat on his front step while he did card tricks and told stories. He taught us songs. His Jewishness was a curiosity to me, nothing else.
After writing last week about being afraid of my grandmother, I’ve been thinking about this. What was it I was afraid of? She didn’t speak English? My mother’s mother spoke French and she was totally senile with her clothes on backwards and rotting food in the refrigerator. But I wasn’t afraid of her! She smiled sort of idiotically as my mother changed her clothes and threw out all the rotten food, but that wasn’t a bad memory. Did I pick up on my mother’s casual attitude?
I’m thinking of this now because a friend’s daughter had a bad experience this week because of the color of her skin. I think of the boy in my class who had polio and walked with heavy metal braces. He often sat alone at lunchtime. I never thought to go sit with him or to reach out in any way. I wonder what he told his mother about his day at school. I find myself wanting to find him and apologize. I wonder how all the rejection he endured shaped his life. I looked at everyone in church today to see what their skin looked like as they went to communion. There was a little diversity, Asian, and Jamaican. I wondered if they felt as welcome there as I do. I hope so, but I really don’t know. I wonder what a child in grade school has experienced that she would tell another they can’t participate because their skin is brown. What cascade of events do our actions trigger?
Love to all,