What I Did
When I was 6 years old, I heard the n-word for the first time. I was in the Taco Bell bathroom when I overheard a disgruntled customer complaining about an employee. I asked my mom later what that word meant. She told me, explained that it should not have been said, and that was the end of that. I know now that the conversation should not have ended there.
When I was 17, I kissed my token black friend. He was (and still is) funny, kind, and very attractive. Some of my friends wouldn’t let me live that down. I know now that I never should have accepted their reactions.
I always thought it was strange that my grandmother’s house had a bathroom in the garage. It wasn’t until I read The Help that I realized that this wasn’t merely a bizarre location for a bathroom. I know now, and I’m mortified.
Having grown up in all-white neighborhoods and schools, going to LSU was quite eye opening. My freshman year, my best friend and I signed up for a 3-person dorm with a random roommate. Our roommate was pretty, hilarious, and so much fun to hang out with, but she had some habits that I didn’t like. She would use a toothbrush to smooth out her flyaway hairs, and whatever hair product she was using was very oily. Our doorknob and faucet were constantly greasy. Her haircare disturbed me; it seemed unnecessary and sometimes gross. I am ashamed that I regarded another human’s self-care this way. I see now that I was able to enjoy my roommate’s blackness only when it suited me, and I know now how wrong that was.
My first teaching job after college was in a rural plantation town I hadn’t even heard of. In many ways, this was the best opportunity of my life. I learned more than I taught during my time at this high school. The student body was almost perfectly split half white, half black. This would be the largest group of black people I’d ever interacted with, and I was going to teach them American History. This was in 2009. Just two years prior to my arrival, this school was still segregating the prom. That’s right: one black prom and one white prom. I think that’s the first time it really hit me. If things like this were still going on, and I was just realizing it, what else did I have to learn? What else was I missing? I don’t remember “white privilege” being a term used back then, but I can say now, that was the moment when I learned about it. How could I, a young, white woman from the big city, possibly educate my black students who were coming of age in this plantation town about slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the Civil Rights Movement? I did what I could, but it wasn’t enough. I know this now.
Moving back home to New Orleans led me to another job in education, this time in an inner-city middle school. One of my students was affectionately referred to as “Little Boy” by his peers. He asked me to call him that, too. I didn’t know better. I ran into this child outside of school with his mother and said, “Hi, Little Boy.” He greeted me warmly as usual, but his mother was icy. And the next day, I was in my black assistant principal’s office getting an education about my use of the word “boy.” My intentions were good, but I know now that it was never her responsibility to educate me.
What I’m Doing
Some of those experiences were a direct result of my upbringing, but I take responsibility for myself. I was utterly ignorant (and likely still am to an extent), but I’m learning. When it came time to choose a school for our children, my husband and I chose public. The diversity was important to us. We read books with the kids not just about prejudice and racism, but simply books with main characters who are people of color (a favorite is Trombone Shorty). My oldest son has the opportunity to attend a sleep-away camp this summer. We could choose from a few different weeks but ultimately decided to send him during a week where underprivileged children from all backgrounds would also be attending. He’s going to get that exposure to other cultures that I didn’t have growing up. As a nursing student, I had the opportunity to observe several OBGYNs during my Women’s Health rotation. As it happened, I was looking for a new OBGYN myself. Hands down, the best deliveries and surgeries I was part of were performed by a black doctor. I did have a fleeting thought about his skin color, but I knew he was the best and chose him for his unmatched skill and bedside manner. My OBGYN is an incredible physician who happens to be black.
In nursing school, they teach us that in order to perform culturally competent care, we must first recognize and examine our own biases. I am actively challenging my friends and family to do the same. I am proud to say that I actually know how to do this now. I’ve learned plenty, but I still have much work to do. I know now that I should have started earlier.