When we moved into East Point five years ago, as restaurant managers and hotel dwellers, it was the first time in my life I was a minority.
I’ll never forgot the first few trips to the grocery store. I was on guard, terrified I was going to offend someone. Make eye contact, smile, nod, be kind, be respectful, don’t stare.
That feels like a long time ago, almost six years, actually.
And we haven’t had an East Point address for going on six months, since our move to the Hapeville neighborhood 10 minutes away, but I’m reminded of one of our last walks around our East Point home.
James and I (me a little more than him), pondered all the years we’d lived in the community. We were nearing the closing date finish line to hand the keys over to the new owner and the reality that it wasn’t going to be home for much longer was setting in.
As I walked out of my driveway and headed towards the loop I made a million times since moving to this particular home in August 2019, my mind settled on a phrase “my whiteness is showing”.
When I first moved in, I’d make this loop and my feelings/actions were similar to the grocery store visits years prior.
Wave. Smile. Don’t be rude. Don’t be offensive. Be respectful. Be friendly.
I’d get slightly offended if someone didn’t wave or smile back but I made it my mission to win them over the next time.
This worked for most people. The last week we lived there, I made the rounds to say bye to all the acquaintances I’d made along my many walks. Swapping phone numbers and addresses to add to our Christmas list so they can watch the babies grow up. My heart is sad I probably won’t see most of these people again but I’m leaving with a heart that’s full of the new relationships I made while living on Farley Street.
Patting myself on the back, I’m proud of the relational work I did here. I loved my physical neighbors, and I showed up as Virginia in their lives, the best I knew how.
I’m proud and I feel embarrassed.
Embarrassed because when I first moved into this community, my mission was as pure hearted as any, and yet, now, five years later, I see I had (and HAVE!!) so much to learn.
When I walked around this community, as a minority among Black people, my mission was to be kind and above all, to not be offensive.
Here’s the thing I’ve learned though…I am white…and my whiteness is offensive.
A definition of offensive is — causing someone to feel deeply hurt, upset, or angry.
It doesn’t matter what I say or how I act or how big my smile is. I have white skin. And my white skin represents all the other white skinned people who have deeply hurt, made upset or angered Black skinned people for many, many, years (and continue to do so), in this country.
This doesn’t mean that everyone who sees me walking up and down the street sees me as offensive. A 5 foot, 1 inch woman pushing a baby stroller seems pretty innocent.
As I met more people on my walk route over the years, I realized a lot of them were looking out for us more than they were offended by me. They’d come out of their houses to shoo away dogs, tell me to put a hat on my kid when it was cold, or let me know someone up to no good was wandering the neighborhood.
But what if my whiteness triggered feelings of being offended? Is that okay? Can I make space for their anger, hurt, fear? Can I not get offended by being seen as offensive?
When we were picking names for our kids we made sure we didn’t choose names that reminded us of other people. You know, like ex girlfriends or boyfriends. Let’s pretend I had an ex-boyfriend named Andrew (name made up — I’m not actually going to write about a real ex-boyfriend here, guys). He broke my heart, caused me a lot of pain, and although I’d healed from it, I still don’t want that constant reminder. Yeas later, we have another Andrew in our lives (this time I’m being real, he’s AMAZING), one of our kids babysitters who they absolutely adore.
I don’t think my ex and our babysitter are the same people but one Andrew caused me pain and one didn’t. No matter how much we love the second, because of the pain of the first, I wouldn’t want my son named Andrew. The name Andrew is attached to some stuff that offends (remember that definition — deeply hurt, upset, or angry) me.
Looking at the history of America, it doesn’t take long to see white people hurting, upsetting and making angry, Black people. Flesh and blood friends I have, right now, can tell stories of their grandparents who have stories of segregation, abuse, discrimination, persecution. Friends I have right now, have told me stories from their college years, being on the front lives of civil rights focused work. A friend, within the past twelve months, shared the paralyzing fear she experienced when her boyfriend was being pulled over, for a seemingly routine and simple traffic violation.
People that look like me, that have the skin I have, have offended people that look like my many East Point neighbors.
Just like I wouldn’t want my son’s name to be Andrew (made up boyfriend name) as a constant reminder of the pain and hurt I’d been caused by an Andrew, I get that if someone (or someone’s family) has been hurt by a white person, my very presence could be a reminder of that pain, triggering anger or other upset feelings.
During that walk I realized there was little, well, nothing, I could do about my whiteness showing. I wasn’t going to walk up to every neighbor and apologize for being white. I wasn’t going to be able to heal the many hurts that had been caused. There wasn’t much action to take (which is SO annoying for someone who likes to fix things!) but I realized there was one thing I could do.
I could make space for the offended feelings. I could choose not to get offended, myself, if someone didn’t wave, or was uninterested in getting to know me. It wasn’t personal. They weren’t against me, Virginia Fortunato. They weren’t offended by me as a person, but my whiteness could be offensive to them, for valid reasons, and is that okay? It was up to me to accept the idea that just by standing there, walking around the neighborhood, I was offensive, because my whiteness was showing.