“The Other” – Notes from an Educated White Woman
An Ignorant Past
I was born and raised in the Deep South. This statement alone causes a reaction from some and judgment about who I am. Yes, it’s true, there were racists in my family, but I was not one of them. My earliest memories of racism and recognizing “The Other” come from riding in the backseat of my grandfather’s Buick as a child. We’d be driving through what he so nonchalantly referred to as “N*-town.” He’d say, “Roll up the windows. Lock the door.” I didn’t understand, but I followed instructions. He actually believed Black people were stupid and inferior. He referred to Blacks as having a “pea-brain.” I remember feeling angry when he said that. In my gut it felt wrong and frankly stupid of him to have such assumptions, but I was a rule-follower, so I obeyed and kept quiet.
Another defining moment I vividly recall was in 4th grade. We lived in the segregated suburbs. In our town it was true that Black people lived “across the tracks.” We moved there for the good schools. There were few children of color in our school, but I recall a young Black girl named Carolyn who was in my 4th grade class. Every morning as school began, we would all rise and say the Pledge of Allegiance. Carolyn, however, did not. It seems her religious beliefs prevented her from doing so. This was the first time I remember recognizing someone as “The Other.” To me, Carolyn seemed lonely and sad. I embarrassingly admit, I did and said nothing.
An Educated Present
Fast forward to today. I have experienced being “The Other” as a woman in white-male dominated industries. It feels uncomfortable and paralyzing when you feel unwanted but your presence is required.
I recall one very poignant moment when I was meeting with an executive team and informed them that our company had just learned we were receiving a diversity award. The CFO looked around the room and chuckled as he acknowledged the white-male audience. My boss, the COO, blushed and defensively said, “Well, we are diverse in other ways.” Awkward…
Another “a-ha” moment was last year when my son’s cell-phone was stolen at summer camp. The mother of the boy who took it reached out after discovering her son had the phone. She had already filed a police report herself and the phone was now evidence. While I thought getting the police involved was severe, she said she wanted him to learn early on that he must walk the line. You see he is dark-skinned. She is worried for his future. She is trying to prevent him from heading down the wrong path and she wants him to learn to walk a narrow path early for fear of what might happen.
In the past few months, my eyes have continued to be opened from other experiences. Take my good friend, Jennifer. She is a highly-educated and successful white woman who has a bi-racial daughter. A few months into COVID and shortly after the murder of George Floyd, her neighbors met outside for a socially-distanced gathering. Her young daughter said that she was afraid to be outside because if the cops came she would be the first one to be shot. This child is one of the kindest and smartest kids I know – and this is her reality. It breaks my heart.
Next Steps: “The Other” Conversations
It’s not easy sharing such personal stories, but I do so for a purpose. Now that you’ve learned about some of my experiences, I want to ask, “How do you feel about me now knowing I grew up in the Deep South?” My hope is that your perception has changed. I hope you now see me as a person with a complicated past trying to make sense out of the present and create a future for my children of which I can be proud.
There is power in story. As a next step, I believe we need to create safe spaces to have these important conversations. Let’s move beyond comfortable conversations and give ourselves permission to be uncomfortable. I encourage you to get permission to share with others and then tell your story, the story of when you first realized there was “The Other.” Ask friends and colleagues to do the same. That story has shaped the person you are today. As you reflect, ask yourself:
- What is true about that story?
- How does that experience shape who I am today?
- Am I holding onto anything that I need to let go of?
For those in Human Resources (HR) or involved Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) work, 5280 HR is incorporating “The Other” stories into training and facilitating safe dialogues in the workplace. We believe that by sharing our stories, we open ourselves up to others to give and receive compassion. This leads to deeper understanding and ability to move beyond the status quo. Frankly, if we really stop to examine it, we likely have much more in common with those we see at “The Other” than our perceived differences.
To learn more about how you can incorporate “The Other” stories into your DE&I strategy, schedule a free consultation.