I Give Up Why I’m No Longer Defending Whiteness
The past two years have solidified my view that America may never change enough for me.
This is I Give Up , a new series from Catapult magazine on the things—habits, expectations, jobs, ambitions, futures, and more—that people have let go of in the past few years.
This year, my three kids watched all six seasons of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air , taking turns impersonating Carlton’s dance and Will’s goofy pickup lines. So you can imagine their shock when they overheard my husband and me talking about how “the real” Will Smith had slapped Chris Rock onstage at the Oscars.
Our eldest, a preteen counting down the days until we buy her a phone, pressed us to see the footage. She and her younger brother stood next to my husband, staring at the screen he’d lowered between them.
“He does and says some things we don’t do in this house,” he cautioned.
“Oh my gosh! What is wrong with him?” my daughter asked. “He didn’t have to do that!”
I don’t remember how many times they watched it, or how many brief exchanges we had about the incident. With kids, you can go from discussing violence to McDonald’s fries to fluffy slime all in one beat. But I did try to facilitate a longer, nuanced conversation about the slap on our drive home one night.
Our motto is “Family over everything,” and I need to believe my children will stand up for one another out there , even if they stay at each other’s necks at home. In the minivan, we discussed disability and illness, how jokes and words can be violent. But I knew I had to address the slap itself. After “I love you,” and “Put your clothes away,” the line my kids hear most these days is “Did you try talking to them?” In our house, we use words first.
“What do Mommy and Daddy always tell you?” I asked from the passenger seat.
My youngest lifted her head from her graphic novel. “Never listen to white people?”
She went right back to reading. The rest of us looked at each other with wide eyes and open mouths. This child, a sensitive spitfire with bottomless wit, always keeps us guessing. Was she serious? Was this a knowing jab, like the time she told her brother her bagel came from “bagels dot com”? Or had I somehow raised a kid who believed all white people were always scheming, unworthy of our trust? We pulled into the garage, and I let the conversation die (the kids already knew what I’d say about the slap, anyway).
This time, I resisted the urge to rush in and save white people from her perspective.
In the past, I might’ve said, “No, of course not! We’d never say that.” Or “We listen to some white people” and then let her fill in the blank with examples of good white friends and community leaders. But this time, I resisted the urge to rush in and save white people from her perspective.
You see, I’ve changed over the last two years. I’ve realized my urge to protect white people, whether we know them in real life or not, does not serve me or my family. It only serves to protect the best possible image of whiteness, and that’s not an image I’m willing to expend any more energy defending.
So much of my life—growing up as “the only” in a white suburb, attending a predominantly white university, and worshiping alongside white Christians—has prepared me to intercept comments like my daughter’s. Over the years, I learned to prioritize white people getting a fair shake, even if they weren’t present or specifically named. What’s difficult to discern, and harder to admit, is the why . I must have internalized the false belief that being liked and approved by decent white people was a prize. On one hand, I decried racism and contested the notion that America had good roots and noble founders. On the other, I knew white people.
Maybe those years of isolation had positioned me to think I should serve as a bridge between races. As though my role, alongside feeding and clothing my Black children, teaching them to read and write, was to remind them “Not all white people are racist.” No, thanks. I’m good.
My children know too much, after all. They know their daddy did everything right as a Black professor at the University of Virginia and that he was still denied tenure by a committee of all-white colleagues in 2020. They know the decision was reversed without apology or explanation. It just took one call from his dean. Where were all the good white people who had looked over his materials and given him good annual reviews?
My kids know that when we decided to leave Charlottesville and sell our house, we rushed them out the door one afternoon and lamented that the white appraiser had shown up thirty minutes early. We explained to them the risk of being seen. Weeks later, our appraisal came back lower than expected.
My children have lived through a pandemic in which many people valued “freedom” over compassion and care for others. They’ve watched a man mock disabled people on a national stage and win, then refuse to concede years later when he lost. They know that if Black people had scaled the Capitol, they would have been slaughtered, sniped off walls, gassed and beaten to the ground.
My kids understand we will all die, and they’ve recently lost a grandparent to chronic illness. But what gives them nightmares, what occupies their young imaginations as a possible and terrible way to die, is being chased and wrongfully killed by police. My oldest knows about Botham Jean and Breonna Taylor. None of them have forgotten how their sixty-eight-year-old grandfather was pulled over and made to stand on the side of a dark, rural road in Ohio while a white officer searched his rental car for drugs. It’s been fifty years since a white officer in Parma, Ohio, ticketed him in an accident involving a white driver with open bottles of alcohol in her car and then left my parents on the side of the road without a way home. So I don’t get to tell them dying at the hands of a cop is like getting struck by lightning. I don’t get to say a thing.
Have we witnessed sparks of progress? I’ve wondered about that first summer of the pandemic, when so many people—not just Black people, though many were Black—gathered in collective rage, chanting together in the streets, in a way that made grief feel like a cousin of hope. In her essay on grief and the pandemic, Jesmyn Ward wrote, “ The revelation that Black Americans were not alone in this, that others around the world believed that Black Lives Matter broke something in me, some immutable belief I’d carried with me my whole life.” That meant something, right? You saw it too.
Remember when antiracist literature was all the rage ? I’m not convinced the book clubs and race to buy backordered titles produced lasting change. Though the way Antiracist Baby sales shot up in response to Ted Cruz’s shenanigans at Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Senate confirmation hearing filled me with pleasure, maybe a second cousin of hope. And I get a thrill out of seeing The 1619 Project on the New York Times Best Sellers list. The supremacist urge to ban books and whitewash history remains, but so do true and faithful narratives.
The past two years have, if anything, solidified my view that America may never change enough for me. You should not vote me into office. I will not deliver the rousing unity speech. And yet I trust and even hope in my five-year-old’s ability to grapple with her own lived experiences, to wrest meaning from them when it’s time, to identify patterns and themes. A couple years ago, when a preschool classmate told the entire class she didn’t like my daughter’s hair, my daughter replied, “Well you should like my hair because my hair is beautiful.” Sometimes my heart breaks even as it swells with pride. She answered perfectly, but I also knew she’d been bruised, retelling that story long after we’d moved away.
You should not vote me into office. I will not deliver the rousing unity speech.
That night in the van, I could have chased her response with a series of questions meant to guide her thinking. When white supremacists violently took to the streets of Charlottesville in 2017 during the “Unite the Right” rally, my oldest explained to her younger brother, “There were police that were really, really helpful and some that were not that helpful.” My husband or I must have told her that. But who is best served by that need to balance things out?
In Unsettled Territory , author Imani Perry’s newsletter for The Atlantic , she describes being deceived by a home inspector who lied to her about a roof’s condition. She cannot say if he lied because she was Black or a woman or because he was a jerk. But she can explore how such deception, over time, affects African Americans. She writes, “Having one’s guard up is essential business in a context in which one might be subject to violence, deceit, or just simple bigotry. To be skeptical is smart. It is also exhausting and sometimes bewildering.” Once I’ve fed my children, helped them with homework, and told them twelve times to get off their laptops, my energy—if I have any left—is not going toward defending whiteness. It’s going toward understanding how my babies carry in their bodies the hypervigilance Perry discusses. Each weekday morning after my youngest steps out of the minivan and onto the school’s curb, she torques her body, slinging her bag up and onto her back, sometimes stumbling backward. It’s too heavy , I think. But she needs what’s inside.
My kindergartner listens to and loves some white people, including but not limited to her best friend, teacher, principal, doctor—even Katy Perry. The risk of her refusing to engage and not forming lasting relationships with white people is quite small. The greater risk lies in immediately or hastily questioning her takes on race. She might receive my interruption or curiosity as an interrogation or, worse, a correction. There are times when I will interrogate and correct her—that is literally my whole job. But not when it serves some maladaptive, adolescent need of mine to prove that “White people are always welcome here.” They’ve always been welcome. That’s literally their whole job.
When I did check-in with my daughter a few weeks after her initial comment, I made sure to ask from a place of curiosity rather than a duty to “both sides” an issue. She remembered the evening clearly.
“Were you joking when you said that?”
“Can you tell me a little more about what you meant?”
“Because Trump is bad. And those white people in the [political] commercials. Except Josh Shapiro. He shook hands with a Black person.”
Josh Shapiro is a Democrat running for governor of Pennsylvania. When we watch Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune each night, his commercial runs alongside those of Dr. Oz and a group of Republican hopefuls vying for the support of Trump and his base. Whereas Shapiro sits down for Sabbath dinner with his family and talks to two Black people on the street, the others hold guns, shake hands with the police, or feature images of Trump.
My daughter has read the room. In time, we’ll discuss the politician’s handshake, how a photo with one Black person does not make someone an ally. But if I’m honest, Josh Shapiro looks like a guy I wouldn’t mind breaking bread with on a Friday night.
I’m here to observe and support my youngest child as she wraps her mind around her place in the world and her responsibility to it. She is not turning her back on the people we love. She is, however, astutely critiquing whiteness. Calling out its persistent deceit. Casually declaring she owes it nothing. Now back to my book , she tells us.