For the first time, I was in the minority instead of the majority. For the first time, my race made me stand out instead of blend in, and I felt uncomfortable. People stared at me, and I stared back.
I am white. I spent all of my elementary years in a school where there were two people with a different skin color than my own. They were black, but they were both adopted by a white family; they were twins. Adam and Lucy were the only faces of diversity in Sandy, Utah. That is why I remember them so well; they were the only people that I was surrounded by that were different. In this way, I have the upbringing of many white people who grow up in small white suburbs.
We had enough money to survive and keep an old but well-functioning, one-story house with three bedrooms and two baths. My parents were in one room, me and my two sisters in another, and my two brothers in the last. My father was unemployed for two years, after the market crashed in 2008, but he found small jobs to help put food on the table. I rode my bike to school every morning, and began the day by saying the Pledge of Allegiance with my class. During the summer, I would have lemonade stands and I used my profits to get a snowie from the Snow Shack.
My parents never had to talk to me about presenting myself as anything more than just a kid. I never had to worry about being in the “wrong neighborhood.” I had dolls that had the same skin color as me, and princesses with the same hair as me. For the first 11 years of my life, I never had to think about race because I did not see it.
However, my perception of the world was flipped upside down when my family dropped everything and moved around the world to Saudi Arabia. When we landed in the Dammam Airport, I was surrounded by men in white dresses, and women in what I naively saw as ninja suites. For the first time, I was in the minority instead of the majority. For the first time, my race made me stand out instead of blend in, and I felt uncomfortable. People stared at me, and I stared back.
I was experiencing what people call culture shock. The announcer on the PA system spoke in a different language and people were sitting on the floor fanning themselves in the hot airport and yelling at the clerk at the passport control desk. Looking at the long lines, I began to complain to my mom, but was cut short by a Saudi man instructing my family to follow him. He led us to a new passport window where we were the only ones in line. My dad asked why we didn’t have to wait in the lines with everyone else, and the man responded in broken English, “You are white American.”
With the knowledge I now have about race, systemic racism, and unconscious bias, that statement now makes sense in a way that it didn’t then. Race is a social construct, meaning it is an abstract and complicated idea that society has agreed to make important, consciously or unconsciously. It is evident that society has made race important because somebody’s race impacts many things that happen in one’s daily life.
On a global scale, history has shown repeatedly that being white means being superior. In a moral sense, this statement is extremely wrong, and not true, but history and even modern-day discrimination support it, and some still believe it. Until people confront their own biases and let go of their own fears of race, our society will not be able to overcome the racism that still persists. I wonder, if a Black American family was in the same position as my family inside that airport, would they get the same treatment?
Now that I am at Blair Academy, with another diverse network around me, I’ve been able to gain a better knowledge of what my Black friends go through on a day-to-day basis. I will never fully understand the “Black experience” because I am white, but I’ve been able to inversely feel a small bit of how they feel with regard to their appearance drawing unwanted attention. At the Dhahran Mall in Saudi Arabia, I sat on a bench while I was waiting for my mom to finish shopping in what I described as “an old lady store.” A young Saudi child ran up to me and immediately reached to feel my hair. Their embarrassed mom, covered in all black besides the slits in her burka, quickly snatched up her daughter and apologized. I can’t help but draw a parallel to my Black friends’ experiences of people constantly asking to touch their hair. I do not believe the child’s intent was malicious, but assume that it was instead based on curiosity and wonder.
This is likely similar to the many ignorant people who feel the need to touch, inquire about, and question physical attributes that make different groups of people stand out. I do not think curiosity gives validity to ignorant behavior, but we need to do better as a society to educate people who are blind to the day-to-day racial issues that still persist, from the small to the large.
The reality is that I am white. I have light skin, green eyes, and brown fine hair. I do not and never will fully understand what it means to be negatively discriminated against based on my race. I will never have to worry about people judging my professionalism based on my race. I will never have to be hyper-aware of my actions, afraid that one slip up could land me in jail or killed.
Nevertheless, I am educating myself to further understand race, and how to combat the racial injustices that are present in almost every aspect of life. I know that I have advantages in today’s world simply because I was born white into a white family, but I am determined to use those advantages to help advocate for those who do not have the same advantages. I do and will continue to do my best to recognize my own unconscious biases. I understand that the system does work in my favor, but as an anti-racist, or someone who is actively trying to combat racial discrimination, I am an ally.
Copyright Ashlyn Alles 2020