White Girl Looking In: Reflections on Race After the Trayvon Martin Verdict

iStock_000025219124XSmallWhen I was in college, a black friend of a friend said to me, You will never understand because you are not black. You are just looking in.

I remember her words, I remember the house where she spoke those words, but I don’t remember what we were talking about. It was, however, important for her to make sure I knew that because I was not black, I would not understand. I would always be the white girl looking in.

I never forgot her words. Even after living with a black man for twenty-two years, even after being rejected by my white family, and embraced by his, she was right. I will never truly understand what it is to be black.

My daughter comes bounding into my bedroom carrying a bag of chicken McNuggets and fries. It’s a rare occurrence, this junk food. She calls in advance to let me know she is on her way home with it. I tell her to get extra.

I am switching channels. HLN  flashes “NOT GUILTY”  on the screen.

My daughter drops the bag on the floor. I look at the screen. I look at her. She is typing something on her phone. I sit on the bed as tears spring to my eyes. This is the same room where we saw the first black man become president of the United States. The same room where we let our junk food get cold that time, too. We were too overcome with emotion to eat.

My husband walks into the bedroom, looks at the screen and says, Are you surprised? You had to know they’d find him not guilty. 

Not just because of the laws in Florida. Because it’s the way life is when you are black.

My friend’s friend was right. I never will truly understand.

I remember when my husband and I were dating, and even in his expensive suit, he couldn’t get a cab to stop for us. He’d ask me to hail a cab, and the first one would come screeching over. We’d go to the mall, and the salespeople followed him. No matter how nicely he was dressed. They followed him. Many years later he told me he didn’t like going out to dinner because you never know what people do to your food if you’re an interracial couple. 

I thought that was crazy talk.

Being part of a black family, I’ve learned what it looks like to be black in America.

But I will never truly understand.

I have compassion, I have outrage, I have despair. But my white skin prevents me from truly understanding. It insulates and protects me from all kinds of injustices. My white skin protects me and gives me the ease in which to move about the city. Whether in a cab, or walking down the street. No one is suspicious, no one thinks I am stealing.

I take for granted that I belong wherever I happen to be.

I think back to that evening my daughter and I sat on the bed and watched a black man become president of the United States. I think how angry I get when my husband says, Really, nothing has changed.  And then I remember the words of a friend of my friend:

You will never understand because you are not black. You will always be a white girl looking in.

Her words haunt me.

After all these years,  I am still just a white girl looking in.

Joan Haskins has been writing her popular blog on Open Salon since 2009. She teaches yoga to children at Balasana Yoga, which provides material for many of her pieces. She also writes memoir pieces, which goes against everything she was taught as a child about not telling family business.  She has one daughter in college who she misses on a daily basis.

Image via iStockphoto/Jonathan Austin Daniels

  • Kathleen Herrick

    Thanks for your insight, Joan. Your article is an important contribution to understanding the prejudice that undeniably exists.

  • Joan Haskins

    Thank you, Kathleen. I wanted to drive home the point that we can have compassion, outrage, solidarity, empathy… but we can never truly know what it is day to day, living in another’s skin.

  • Insightful. Now, let’s reverse it. Still true?

    • Joan Haskins

      That’s something I’d want to think about more. I can say that in some ways “reversing” the story doesn’t make sense. White people have privilege in our society
      simply because of the color of their skin. White people are the oppressors, not the other way around in this society, so it’s hard for me to try to reverse the situation.

      • Joan Haskins

        Remember Henry Louis Gates, the black Harvard professor who tried to break into his own home? The police were called. He was taken into custody for resisting arrest, although he clearly proved that the home was his. Now picture that happening to a white man. I don’t see it happening…

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