One of the perks of being born into a military family that lives on a military base is the opportunity to be introduced to the wide array of skin colors that people have. The apartment building where we lived had 8 units. Only two sets of parents were both white; my parents and a couple from Michigan. I didn’t realize this until years later when I began asking my mother about that little community. For me, as a three year-old, being white was ok just like my best friend being brown was OK. I had no frame of reference to think otherwise. In fact, it was reinforced by the other community I was a part of – my father’s troops. We had social gatherings with them fairly often, especially during the holidays. Not only were they different colors they were from all over the world. These were folks who came to our home frequently.
My father who was born and raised in south Alabama didn’t act any differently toward the black folk in our apartment complex or in his unit as he did toward anyone else. My mother who was born in Germany loved her best friend across the hall from us who was from Japan. The skin color rainbow was evident among all of my little friends. Lilly, my best friend, had the most beautiful skin color of us all. Her mother was from Japan and her father was from the States. He was black. Even as a young child I was drawn to Lilly’s beauty and her feisty personality. She was the ring leader for us preschoolers in the building. My memory of her is vivid because when they moved to another army base I grieved for her. Our moms kept in touch for many years, but Lilly and I went our separate ways.
This early history played an important role in how I see others and the world right now. In today’s climate of racial hatred and division being promoted by the current administration it’s important for each person to think about how their early years still inform their perceptions of people. For a few minutes think back to your preschool years. Where did you live? Were there different races or ethnicity of people around you? Were any of your playmates or family members different from you? Did your primary caregivers say or do anything that made you aware that certain people were different from you? What overall message did you receive about other races or ethnicity?
Once we reflect on what we were taught during those early years we can become aware of our own learned racism. Although I had a good foundation for being an accepting person there were prejudices that were inherent in the culture. Gradually I have confronted my own racism as a white cis-gender female. I have been liberated from the stereotypes of whiteness that are harmful to myself and to others. New voices, experiences, colors are now a daily part of my life. They teach me to be patient with myself and others. Growing pains are….well….painful. But once you’ve learned the essential truths of how racism harms our world, you can’t unlearn it.