“Will I be the only white person there?”
Unfortunately, hearing this combination of words put together just so has occurred all too often for my taste over my twenty-four years spent here on Earth. It was usually the response to an invitation extended to a white friend for a certain event—a church service, a family gathering, a concert or show. It annoyed me to no end. It still does, actually. Inquiries about possible costs, other people in our party, the time of the event, appropriate attire, etc. would not have been met so unfavorably. However, in too many situations the nature of my being black warranted a “warning” of sorts, a disclaimer, an explanation which would help my white buddies prepare to be inundated with Black presence. My annoyance came not necessarily from the act of questioning, but the state of mind that allowed such an apprehension to exist. Why is there so much concern?
As a Black man born and raised in the deepest of the south, 30 minutes away from one of the Southern-most coasts of America, being a minority within society was simply a way of life. There was really no confusion about it. I do not ever recall petitioning my parents as to why most of my classmates were white. Nor did I find it peculiar that up until 4th grade I was consistently the only Negro man-child enrolled in the gifted education program in my grade class. (There were one or two others in the grades ahead of me.) In 4th grade, I became one in a set of “gifted” black boys while CW, a good friend of mine, maintained the status of a sole “gifted black girl” until grade 6.
From my personal perspective at that time there was nothing really odd about the situation. I was just living life as a kid. It never occurred to me that I was seemingly out of place. I never really felt like I was a minority, even though I was completely aware that my skin starkly contrasted that of most of my friends who were white and that a majority of the television shows and movies that I watched featured white people and told the story of white lives (another post for another day). I’m black, they’re white. The significance of it all stopped right there. Chalk it up to the innocence of youth, I suppose, but race didn’t matter, at least not to me.
Then middle school and high school happened. I cannot recall an isolated event that led to the unveiling of the world as it is to my eyes now, but eventually I was made aware of my status, not only as a black person, but as a minority and it made me slightly uncomfortable. Note that I said “slightly” as it didn’t overwhelmingly hinder my success as a student and student leader. While my awareness had grown, any apprehension that existed was very minimal.
“Why am I the only black guy in Physics and Pre-Cal?”
“Why am I the only black person in the trumpet section?”
“Why am I the only black guy in National Honors Society?”
“Why am I the only black guy in AP Government/Economics?”
These were questions that I would ask myself in the back of my head, but silently go on enjoying the company of my white brethren. There were loads of fun times within my friend group, but I wonder now if my friends were concerning themselves with the same questions I was asking myself, if they even noticed…
By the time I got to college at Auburn the thoughts still quietly lived with me, but I anticipated, like most incoming freshmen, that going to a large university would afford me the opportunity to connect with open-minded individuals on planes that were not overshadowed with racial differences. Overall, I suppose I wasn’t disappointed, however, it was while away at college that I first encountered the ‘only white person’ question. This led to an even more heightened, perhaps alarming, awareness of my minority status. Fortunately I was able to stifle any outward expression of my increasing annoyance to just an eye roll as I’m used to a minimal level of discourtesy or heedlessness associated with being a minority. And while I’ve never lashed out at any soul for asking if they will be the only white person at an event, with every renewed utterance of the question my patience wore thin. I began to thoroughly interpret the attitude as insensitive to my experience as a member of a minority group in America. It bothered me, even if it was unintentional, which 99.999-percent of the time I’m sure it was.
Trying to move past my burgeoning rage, I sought to understand why it mattered to them. I neared the conclusion that for white Americans being in the minority is a relatively foreign concept and the very idea could very well bring about the nervousness. I considered how the idea would be introduced to a majority mindset which has been fortified for years by a rampant capitalistic society that caters to those who have the surplus capital to participate (certainly not most blacks who are generally among the poorest in the country); by media customs that critically lack positive representation of races outside of whites; and most prominently by a legacy of deep rooted white supremacy laid in place at the very first contact between the black and white cultures.
How can they be held accountable if they never thought “I wonder what it would be like to be black in the US or Europe’? How could they be held accountable if they’re never required to consider how it feels to be singled out because of the color of your skin? As a young black man on the other side of the spectrum I can attest to letting my curiosity wonder what it would be like to be white as the perceived (and real) advantages of the fantasy are too great to ignore; but for my white friends, I couldn’t help but wonder if it ever crossed their mind. The idea of this gap between myself and my friends, of them not being able to empathize with a very real part of my life, was, and still is, quite troubling.
Being established in a solid majority position in society offers a type of security, so one can see how it would be viewed as counter-intuitive to worry as if it were not the case. However, does this excuse the ‘Will I be the only white person” question and the like? If it does, I say it’s to a limited degree. While it is possible to let it “slip our minds”, we are all given free will to think for ourselves and to nurture our consciences. But perhaps relativism has obliterated any idea of being accountable for each of our contributions to the state of our world. I do not necessarily believe that it is possible to relate to every other human being alive, however, to make the cognitive choice to begin thinking and considering what it may be like to experience life through the eyes (or skin) of another person would do more good than one may initially believe.
Some may argue the exposure stance on the matter, that lack of exposure to diverse persons disables them from being able to relate to a minority experience. However, as time moves forward and technology pushes us humans closer and closer together, this argument is wearing thin. Even if you live in one of the most racially homogenous locations in America, one would have at least seen the (though rare) physical embodiment of persons of a different race in books and movies, on TV and, of course, the internet. I believe that this small exposure alone should be enough to incite inquiry. Others, such as college students, have it better off. One of the benefits of going to college is supposed to be the many, many opportunities afforded a student to immerse themselves in diverse experiences, cultural experiences being one of them. Even at the whitest predominately white institution, if the education process is working correctly, students should graduate well-rounded, more informed, and more relatable having taken it upon themselves to take part in authentic cultural events which are hopefully being sponsored and promoted by the university in abundance. If at some point people aren’t required to step out of their ethnocentric comfort zones there will be little to no hope for mutual, stimulating cultural education or empathy, and prevailing questions such as “will I be the only white person” will continue to plague our society and annoy the hell out of American Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans for years on end.
And situations like these…
…will continue to receive reactions like these.
The “Will I be the only white person” question is, without a doubt, inappropriate and inconsiderate, but what’s even more detrimental is the prevailing mind view that facilitates such questions. Black people, just by virtue of being minorities in the United States, have always had to be either the sole representative, or one of a minute few for, our community in various ways. While we’re no longer plagued by legally induced separation of races (kind of), we still retreat from one another in the name of familiarity and comfort. Here, in the second decade of the 21st century, de facto segregation has no place in our ranks. Of course there are always exceptional individuals who step out of the status quo to shake things up; however, their actions only speak for their own personal selves and not a collective like the white majority. Why is it exceptional to subject one’s self to minority status? When will the majority take on the interests and concerns of the minority? When will the minority get a break from marginalization and be embraced, without condition, by the majority? When will we all become one collective group without notion or care of majority/minority status? Is it possible? Some say no, but I believe it is. Only time will tell, as it always has and I hope we’re listening when it speaks.
Thank you for reading and I look forward to hear your thoughts!