White Lies

Most of my life, upon meeting strangers, I was asked, “What are you?”  Sometimes the question referred to my last name: “Where are you from?” My answer was always honest: “I’m American.”

“No–but where are you FROM?”

I was born here. My parents were born here. My grandparents were born here. My great grandparents….they were from Eastern Europe.”

Already, you might be imagining my hair and facial features. Now you probably assume my complexion. You’re probably pretty close. You also probably have an immediate story in your head about what any and all of that might mean about me. That might be close too, but it’s still a meme that popped into your head. Probably instantaneously. You think you know me because you have already identified me as a certain type. You’re like an instant anthropologist.

We all do these instant assessments, often without thinking. Too often we assume and look for confirmation bias not necessarily because of one’s name or physical features, or even sartorial clues, but because we have assumptions about location, or upbringing, or job, or education, or….

In truth, I have always known what those questions were about, and I was always uncomfortable and a little cheeky in answering. I never thought that the ones who asked me, as an initial greeting, were interested in me as a person. I thought they were interested in whether or not I fit a type, and what that might mean for them. To be fair, upon getting to know people, last names, places of origin etc, may be interesting stories. They can be great connectors. When I was often asked by “others”, I never had the sense that it was an initiation into connecting. I always thought it was to highlight othering. And so, I answered honestly to connect. I’m American. I’m the third generation born here after my great grandparents’ emigration to the U.S., which for many whose families fled or perished in Europe during the World Wars, and in Russia/Soviet Union, that’s quite American. Over a century of American. 

Still,  my complexion didn’t convey a story, and I have always lived with that advantage. As a Caucasian, I was never a threat. I was never perceived as a story first. Maybe I was perceived as a story second, as instant anthropologists do with the clues used to identify and label. But my instantaneous backstory was neutral because my skin is considered neutral—white. 

And here lies the problem that we have all concealed: We can’t be colorblind. In fact, we have been blinded by the White Lie that Civil Rights of the 50s and 60s changed us all for the better. We have progressed. Slavery is so far in the past that it’s as alien to us as the wigs and clothing of the17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. And of course we have progressed in so many ways. But the lagging progress over the last few decades for so many people of color, despite historic breakthroughs including the first Black POTUS, (who happened to be the best POTUS of my lifetime), are still stuck with systemic disparities that have proven over and over again to threaten Black lives.

The White Lies are the ones that tell us that we don’t need to upend the system or disrupt. We have a Disrupter in Chief who seeks to undermine any and every institution and it feels like he is destroying the Democracy and culture of the USA. The White Lies are the ones that say that we are decent and believe everyone deserves opportunity without imagining how our systems have oppressed even with historic changes. 

Our White Lies have told us that the Black Community is separate (and not equal). Our White Lies have told us that White Saviors are not wanted, so support has been less visibly integrated. Our White Lies have told us that we are not racist, yet everyone seems to judge everyone by their complexion. At least we can acknowledge the White Lie that we are not colorblind. 

The White Lie forgets about Red Lining, and Voter Suppression (in 2020!), and health and environmental disparities that disfavor (and endanger) many communities of color.

The White Lie is that what seems like a life of doing what one should and being decent is enough. It ignores the privilege of being on the path at the start. Even from less than optimal circumstances, and for those who have overcome great challenges, the White Lie tells us that there’s no difference between challenges to overcome. 

The great shock of this moment is twofold: One is the heinousness with which police brutality has killed black men and women and kids across this country because they were black, especially in the 21st century when the White Lie was that we were so far beyond this barbaric behavior. The second shock is that so many of the people with whom I went to high school and college have posted of their own experiences of driving while black; walking while black; raising black children to be safe. I was floored. I had no idea that people who lived in my world—in a late 20th Century/21st century comfortable, progressive world—were subjected to not just such indignities, but life threatening situations.

The White Lie of the middle and upper middle class (and beyond) is that everyone is safe if they just do the right thing. My heart aches at this White Lie that we are confronting now. 

Like the Women’s Movement that #MeToo alerted everyone to say “ENOUGH!”, and shocked everyone that in this day and age, we are not as far along the path of progress as we hoped or thought, #BLM has touched us to stand together to say “ENOUGH!” 

We understand that trolls are a fact of life, not an old tale. They lurk in the shadows and feed off baiting others. We also have learned that Zombies exist. They linger among us with dead ideas feeding off of us. Monsters exist. The White Lies have told us that they have been beaten forever. We see with our own eyes that monsters are tolerated until we stand together to squash them. 

We have changed our culture from time to time. We have overcome horrible pandemics, and endured horrific losses along the way.  I often think about how the culture of smoking has changed so radically in my lifetime. And Gay Marriage! That was unthinkable, until it wasn’t. Despite the very real fears and dangers of the dual pandemics of COVID19 and Racism in 2020, I also see the creativity and strength that are emerging. We can acknowledge the White Lies and monsters among us, and reimagine how we want to protect and serve our communities—all our selves. 

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