The year before I was born, my parents, a young white couple reinventing themselves in the wake of the civil rights movement and amidst the anti-war movement, bought into a group house in Mt. Pleasant, a now leafy neighborhood in Washington, DC. In that year, 1973, Mt. Pleasant was already a working class Black neighborhood. Five years earlier, prior to the assassination of Dr. King, it had been majority white. I learned all that around the same time I turned 40.
During that same time, when our neighbors were service workers, government employees, and independent business operators, my parents enrolled me in a multicultural bilingual pre-school. In this late seventies social experiment, each classroom had three teachers—one Latinx, one white, and one Black. The students mirrored this diversity, and represented a range of class backgrounds. It was a community of people committed to making the world anew.
When I was five, my parents enrolled me in our neighborhood public school. I was always one of, generally, two white students in my class, and I was always enrolled in the “gifted and talented” class. Between kindergarten and sixth grade, I not only jumped jump rope and scanned the celebrity photos in Jet magazine, but also sang the Black national anthem and learned about George Washington Carver, Charles Drew, and Mary McLeod Bethune. Outside of school, I was welcomed into the homes of my classmates where I was introduced to new ways of being and new expectations for behavior. I learned to monitor myself, not wanting to draw attention to my whiteness, to my difference. Beginning in middle school, and then accelerating after college, my social context became whiter and whiter.
For many years, I told my story as one who had “Black friends” and what that meant for my becoming. More recently, I began to reflect on the significance of being conditioned via my schooling to respect Black leadership. And now, amidst the racial uprising, I am seeing myself again but with different eyes. When I was five, when I was 12, when I was 15, I was welcomed into the homes and families and folkways of my Black friends. They helped raise me. Now it is generally within majority white spaces that I establish relationships with my colleagues and friends of color.
A few years ago, I saw an internet meme that said, “White supremacy is the water, not the shark.” I think about how lucky I was to swim in different waters for so long, and how hard I have to continue to work to not get lost amid the bigger ocean of it all.