Butterball

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Cloudscome

I have been trying to write a post about how we come to know white privilege. In particular I am wondering how to talk to other white people about it when they say things like “I don’t believe in white privilege.” I am really stuck on how to unpack that statement and figure out what the most helpful reply would be.

Instead of chewing on that right now I decided to tell you a story about a girl I knew in my childhood that helped me begin to see my own white privilege. My blog-budding Kohana recently said “Relationships, more than anything else, overcome stereotypes. Friendship with someone outside of our box leads to empathy about the things that are important in their life. People who grow up surrounded by people that differ from them on a number of levels have such an advantage.” That reminded me of the advantage I was given in going to schools full of children of all races and ethnicities.

When I was in third grade we moved and I attended my third new school. I was shy and a bit clumsy in socializing. I can remember one particular day that shook me up so much I think it forever changed my perception of myself, my race and the rest of the world. There was a little girl in my class that everyone called “Butterball”. I was horrified at the cruelty of that nickname. She was very light-skinned black, had a splash of freckles across her nose, and was quite fat. She was the color of cold coffee with too much milk in it. Her hair was blond and always pulled up to one puff on the top of her head, with coarse fuzzies sticking out all around. The other black girls made fun of her for being too light and too fat. I can even remember asking a black girl once why they called her that (I don’t think I knew what a Butterball turkey was at that point) and she laughed and said it was because she looked like a Thanksgiving turkey; so buttery and plump. The look on Butterball’s face is always miserable in my memory.

Butterball took a liking to me for some reason. I think it was because I also didn’t have any friends. I think it also had something to do with my being skinny and white and having straight light-brown hair. She used to follow me around the playground asking me to play with her and trying to stroke my hair or my arm. I didn’t like her because the whole thing creeped me out. And, of course, I wanted to be friends with all the other girls. I have a really strong memory of a day at recess when Butterball had chased me up to the top of the monkey bars. I was safe up there because she was too fat to climb them. I couldn’t come down all recess because she was standing at the bottom waiting for me and begging me to play with her. All the other girls had run off somewhere else to play without us.

I felt so sad for her and so guilty for not wanting to be near her. What I knew about race and racism at that point was pretty dim. I learned from Butterball that my whiteness was something to be envied and something to be scorned. Butterball was too white for the other black girls but not white enough for herself. I have never been able to let go of the conflicting emotions this encounter brought me. How much of it was her light skin and how much was her being overweight or being miserable and socially inept? I still wonder about Butterball and what happened to her.

I am not saying this is an example of white privilege. It’s a story of a little white girl first encountering another child who had been hurt by racism. It’s a little white girl’s first glimmer of understanding that someone might want to be in her position simply because she is white. The first time this little girl saw a glimpse of the complexity of blackness and the enigmatic position of whiteness. Being stuck up at the top of that monkey bars was the beginning of my education as an anti-racist parent.

I am thinking about this particularly in reference to white parents adopting transracially. Multiracial Sky had a post recently where she said, “If White parents are not fully invested in learning about their child’s heritage and incorporating their child’s culture into the family’s traditions and culture, this responsibility falls to the child. The fact that race does not seem to matter to many transracially adopting parents is the epitome of White Privilege.” A white parent with good intentions to adopt a child that needs a home, but who has no experience of knowing or relating to a person of color has no foundation to address a child of color’s experience of the world. It may be a defense mechanism to proclaim that doesn’t matter. It may be simple ignorance; acknowledging color has never mattered to the white person before.

I am not surprised that it is hard to see white privilege if you haven’t ever had experiences like mine. I am not surprised that some people can say “Purple, green or polka-dot, I don’t care what color they are I just love my kids” when they have never had close contact with someone whose life has been deeply traumatized by the world’s reaction to the color of their skin. I do, however often feel blinded and muffled, wrapped in cotton wool when I find myself in a lily-white environment and those around me don’t see any problem with it. How do we address that? How do we start the conversation?

Cloudscome is a single mother with three sons. She is a library-media specialist and blogs about books and technology at http://awrungsponge.blogspot.com. Parenting, adoption and the rest of her life she blogs about at http://sandycovetrail.wordpress.com/.

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