Insiders know and outsiders see.
It is a truism in the social sciences that insiders know and outsiders see. We all are experts on what it is to live as us with those like us, but we are sometimes blind to what others know about us: Teenagers know their angst but not that it will pass, fast drivers feel their own power but not their impact on traffic, and white people don’t generally have to know how we look to others. This is a true story about how I was given the gift of an outsider point of view of my whiteness and how that changed me.
Racism teaches me that my story is the center of everything. Beyond the necessary self-centeredness of toddlerhood and the self-absorbed drama of high school is another layer sustained into adulthood which tells me that I get to be what normal is, and that I get to “belong” just about where ever I am. It does this by telling me, and others, that they are not the center of their own story, that they do not define standards of success, and that they do not completely belong even in their own homes doing perfectly normal things.
Looking back over my life I see that the lie of this story that my whiteness was the center of everything peeked out all the way along, including through my parents’ sympathetic conversations about the civil rights movement, and the high school friendship that fell apart when I was surprised by the lack of any white faces in her family photographs and didn’t know how to understand or process that discomfort.
As a child, I did not know how deep the history and impact of racism ran, or how strong the resistance to it was in the first few decades of my life, though I was aware of the four girls bombed in their church, and King’s murder, and students riding buses for voting rights. And I knew when SNCC told white organizers they’d have to leave and do their own work elsewhere, because some of them were family friends. My point in this brief and incomplete review is that issues of racism shaped my consciousness before I had a name for them.
Though I had been prepared by these experiences, the moment I first FELT my “normalcy” as a lie and set about learning a truer story happened half a lifetime ago in a world where I was distinctly not the norm. It happened because I accepted an invitation to cross a bridge of friendship into a different world, if only momentarily, and let myself be changed by what happened there.
The event which served as the fulcrum, the pivot point, in the story of my racial awareness began when I traveled to Jamaica with a group of friends. One of my fellow travelers went there regularly and was friends with a man who lived on the island, Horace. Horace became part of our group, helping with arrangements and showing us around. He and I spent time talking the first few days of the trip, stumbling over my challenges understanding his way of speaking to compare how we each understood the world. Then he took us all to a beach near his home.
To get there we loaded up in two boats, which I’m sure have names which would evoke for you the long, low, motorized crafts from which I could trail my hand in the water as we ran through the sea, but I don’t have those words and can only tell you that we climbed into them from the resort’s beach, and then we rode around an island whose geography was not part of my internal maps, and we ended up on the black-sanded beach near Horace’s home and there we spent a lovely day.
And then it was the end of the day and time to go back and we returned to the boats and, as people were climbing in, Horace asked if I wanted to stay and see his home. In that moment on which the rest of my life pivoted I plunged through the unknown and said yes, and then watched as my friends from my home rode away from a place I didn’t know the name of to a place I could not have found on a map. After they were out of sight I stood on the beach with Horace and watched a man wearing a machete stride toward us, and I hoped that the voice that had told me to stay had been intuition and not something less true.
Horace’s home was up the hill in the jungle that met the sea. The building was made of branches and thatch for which I did not, do not, know the proper words. The lighting was kerosene, the cook fire put off fumes which made me queasy, and I remember cassava root in all the meals they shared with me.
“They” were Horace and his neighbors. We sat up late that night, mostly with them talking and me trying to track the conversation through a version of English I couldn’t follow well. At first I was aware of being the “other” there, in culture, class, race, and gender, but the others didn’t seem to care so I sat with them. As I sat there not talking much, taking in what I could of their stories and letting the rest go by, my awareness of our differences began to fade.
In the morning Horace and I headed back to the resort. We walked on well-worn paths through the trees to a dirt track which brought us to a small cluster of brightly painted homes where we got into a taxi with four or five other people to get to a town where we disembarked to wait for a bus to back to my friends from home.
It was mid-afternoon. The town square bustled with kids in uniforms headed home from school, vendors selling vegetables, clothing, and pots and pans from carts and store fronts, and people going from where they were to where they needed to be.
I was in a bit of an altered state from the overwhelm of being in so many new settings so fast, the queasiness from the cooking fumes, and the lack of sleep from sitting up late into the night, so I was just hanging out until the next thing happened when a little orange sedan drove into the traffic circle, stopped for moment while a few tourists leaned out their windows to take pictures and then drove away again. This happened so quickly that I became aware of my reactions only as they left.
The first was anger at “those white people” for treating the people and place as something to be claimed and consumed, though I’m not sure how much of that was my emotion and how much I picked up from the ripple through the crowd. My second reaction was the startled realization that, in many critical ways, I had more in common with the people in the car than those around me. It occurred to me that, besides the people in the car, I was the only white person I’d seen since the boats pulled away from Horace’s beach, and I noticed that, for a day or so, I’d forgotten that I was white.
It turns out I haven’t been able to forget this since.
I framed this story Insiders Know, Outsiders See because I wanted to capture that moment in which I first saw myself as white through the eyes of others, as the carrier of a problem I do not want to be part of.
I didn’t know at the time how much it would change me. I was angry and startled and then a bus came and we went back to the resort and, after a few more days, I returned to the States. I didn’t know until I got back that, in that moment in the square, I had lost something: I had lost the ability to turn off noticing racism. In one moment for which I had spent a lifetime preparing, the shell that protected me from really seeing racism shattered, and I was naked in the face of it.
Everywhere I looked I saw and felt the physical, intellectual, and emotional impacts of racism in a much deeper way than I had before. I no longer had a choice about noticing it. Even though I was not its target, this consciousness wiped me out. It was weeks before I could build filters back up, not to not know or see, but to take it in at a more manageable rate. At that moment in the square it became impossible for me to ignore racism or to accept it without resistance.
I have not always been graceful, aware, or smart in this resistance. Like most (maybe all) white people I’ve been quite bad at it sometimes. De-centering my own whiteness is an ongoing process, but I could not have made whatever progress I have without people who were willing to offer me bridges into what they know about themselves as insiders of other racial identities.
But perhaps more important to my growth was (is) that some people inside other racial identities have been willing to share their outsider knowledge of my racial identity.
This is a more risk-filled bridge for them to cross than any I have ever gone over: In sharing with me what they see about me, they risk triggering my defensiveness and possible resulting attack from the power position of my whiteness. Even if they have the tools to deflect an attack, they need to decide if the risk or hassle is worth it on that particular day.
Most of my progress has come from people who were willing to take this risk, whether through their public writing or art, or with me directly. Horace and his neighbors didn’t explicitly tell me what they saw, but they permitted me into their world in a way that let me glimpse myself through others’ eyes.
In the decades since I decided not to get into that boat, I have come to understand that some of the barriers to communicating insider awareness may be insurmountable, and that people in targeted groups have no choice but to notice what outsiders think they see about them, but the learning which has taken me deepest is a dual consciousness about my own racial identity, a consciousness that first awoke that day I watched my insider group ride away in two boats and set about learning what outsiders know about me.
(image from http://www.fisher-price.com)