I grew up in lily-white Marin County where even today more than 80 percent of the population is Caucasian. My exposure to African-Americans (let alone Asian-Americans, Latinos, etc.) was fairly limited. So you can imagine my wonder and curiosity as I watched a college roommate spending hours on her “black” hair. Allyson patiently explained how she cared for her hair and the culture around “black” hair. If she was offended by my naïveté, if she considered me racist, I never knew.
She treated my curiosity as coming from someone who was uninformed. It took me years to understand that it was a gift to me and burden to her.
Sadly, not much has changed. A recent article in Yale’s school newspaper, Yale Daily News, recounted how student Carol Crouch spends much of her time explaining her “black hair.” Like my classmate, Carol is patient and tolerant ... and burdened.
As I have grown, I have learned that my naïveté was its own form of racism, a reflection of the supremacy of white culture, something to overcome. Something to be sure my own children are aware of.
So, I shared with them a video that has recently been flying through the blogosphere. In it, an African-American comedian, Franchesca Ramsey, dons a white wig and then quotes all of the things said to her by white friends, colleagues, and strangers. It is a brilliant send-up of the casual racism that permeates our “post-racial society” and speaks to the notion that naïveté is no longer an excuse for misinformation.
When I think about how to honor Martin Luther King, Jr.’s memory, I think about doing the best I can to ensure my children are not as misinformed or naive or, let’s call it ignorant, as I was. They are blessed to have friends from all types of backgrounds and cultures.
I am confident my children will not arrive on their college campuses only to marvel at the way their roommate does her hair or how another chooses to pray five times a day or how a third considers dishwashing machines as foreign as the new country to which his or her family has arrived.
Today, my children and I will ride the to San Francisco and then we will walk to our favorite dim sum restaurant. We’ll spend the afternoon visiting the Museum of the African Diaspora and perhaps end the day seeing the Gertrude Stein exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
We can do all of this because the good news is in the decades since I left my childhood home, the wider community around me has also evolved. And, while there is much to learn and still much to be changed, I would like to believe we are making strides to move beyond ignorance, even if it is only one child at a time.