The Common Good

Black and White Like Us

I took my 11-year-old daughter to the Cheetah Girls concert a week after Election Day. Stood in line for 20 minutes with other moms to buy her overpriced popcorn and soda. Forked over the rest of the money in my pocket for a poster and some laminated thing dangling from a lanyard. Sat through throngs of tweens screaming "girl power" in upper octaves.

It wasn't until five o'clock the next morning, when the caffeine in the value-sized soda jolted me awake, that I realized I had forgotten during the concert that my daughter and I don't share the same skin color. I am white, and she is black.

I don't usually forget about this distinction, maybe because we are new to each other; she moved into our home just five months ago by way of the District of Columbia Child and Family Services Agency. We hope to be what the system refers to as her "forever family," her last stop after three years and three foster homes.

I don't usually forget about race, maybe because I am a white woman who lives with her white husband in a predominantly black neighborhood in a predominantly black city. I teach at a predominantly black college. That makes me, on most days, a sort of minority. I know what it feels like to be the only white in the room, the only white on the bus, the only white in line at Safeway.

I am aware of this fact, and its stinging lesson is not lost on me. I did not have to fight blistering or even subtle prejudice to be able to do those simple things.

What it means to be a person of color, I can never fully know. I try to maintain an unshakable respect for my black neighbors, students, colleagues, friends -- for the fact that their culture and way of life are, quite simply, theirs. No matter how close I come to understanding, I will never truly grasp what it means to be part of a community held together by color and courage, a community proud, strong, and resilient. No matter how thrilled I may be, I cannot feel the same depth of gratitude and relief at seeing a black man walk into the presidency.

I am still learning these lessons. I grew up in a Midwestern community in which I could count on my fingers the persons of color in my school. My daughter is now experiencing the photographic negative of that experience: she is a black child surrounded by black children. When I pick her up from school, those children stare; they ask if I am my daughter's mother.

People like to talk about being colorblind, about how we're all the same on the inside, that race shouldn't matter. I understand and don't disagree with their intent, but it seems to me that race should matter. Race is part of who we are. If I choose to disregard skin color, mine or my daughter's or anyone else's, I miss out on an integral part of what each of us brings to the table: a deep reservoir of history, culture, and beauty. Perhaps race doesn't fall into the category of qualifications, where it can easily be twisted into prejudice, but rather that of qualities, where it can inform and enrich.

My daughter was initially shocked when she learned that her new parents were white. She had assumed we would be black. She was hesitant at first, afraid we would make her talk a certain way and listen primarily to Beethoven. We explained that we did not want to make her into something she's not, that it would be a both/and proposition of retaining the best of what she brings with her and being exposed to even more. Slowly we are blending, and I am transforming from a white mother into Mommy.

Perhaps it is fitting that our first black president is actually biracial, the product of black and white parents, the melding of colors and cultures. That seems to be where many of us are, trying to fit the two together without losing either.

Maybe the goal is not being colorblind but rather being so comfortable with race that it raises no more eyebrows than anything else. Then having a president of any color would at last be normal -- as normal as emptying your pockets to take your kid to a concert.

Wendy Bilen's writing has been featured in numerous newspapers and journals and on public radio. Her biography-memoir, Finding Josie, was released in 2008. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she teaches English at Trinity University. This post appears courtesy of a partnership with UrbanFaith.com.

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