Melanie

Please Read Here for an Introduction on Monday Morning Meetings.

I feel, as a lifelong student of black-white race relations–albeit a white one–that the only way to improve race relations is to talk and talk and talk and get to know.

I think we especially need to ask ignorant questions, as long as they are borne of respect and a desire to learn. Otherwise, how do we get less ignorant? If we intend to know, then we might hurt, we might offend, but only momentarily. Bit by bit, we’ll go forward.

Cut-and-pasted below is an actual Facebook conversation I had with my friend Melanie, one awesome chick who happens to be black, and who allowed me to try this little experiment. I asked her questions that have peeked around in my mind on several occasions.

Jessica Null Vealitzek

    • First, do you prefer black or African-American? Are the (respectful) labels something black folks like you care about or are they something that certain spokespeople just make up? And, do you hate that question?

Melanie

    • I think the label thing is a funny one because personally I don’t care. I like African American and I like black. However, I know several people who have a definite feeling about it. A friend of mine prefers black, others push hard to be called African American.
    • I think that’s a safe question. “Safe” meaning that’s about as far as most people go when it comes to asking questions about race.

Jessica Null Vealitzek

    • So either is ok for you. I’ll go with black because it’s shorter.
    • Here goes. I would not be friends with you if you were not the funny, supportive, and intelligent person that you are. But I have to confess. I’m glad I have a friend who is black. I like meeting new people, especially those who will expand my knowledge and experiences. Does this undercut our friendship?

Melanie

    • It doesn’t undercut our friendship. You shouldn’t feel bad about it because I feel that you and I are friends because we’re friends and you like me as a person. It’s just nice that I’m black, because it enriches your experience, enriches your life experience.
    • Though you do have to recognize that it’s a privilege for you, that you exercise, to have that feeling.
Jessica Null Vealitzek
    •  Will you say more?

Melanie

    • Sure, you think it’s neat that I’m black and that you have a black friend, but I don’t have that. Many of my friends are going to be white and I have to explain things or brace myself for insensitive comments.
    • You can just go about your daily life and be you; me, I have a bit of a guard up when I meet people because I’ve been hurt so many times in the past.

Jessica Null Vealitzek

    • Got it. Do you think that all that bracing yourself, though valid, can lead to defensiveness? How do you draw the line?

Melanie

    • I think that I hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

Jessica Null Vealitzek

    • How are black people and white people different in your eyes?

Melanie

    • Oh there’s so many ways that white people and black people are different, but neither group is monolithic. So that’s a hard question and I could spend all day on it making a list and then creating caveats for that list.

Jessica Null Vealitzek

    • Give just a couple colorful (no pun intended) examples.

Melanie

    • OK
    • One, I feel that black people are more honest in their feelings
    • They are more likely to tell it like it is
    • The white people that I’ve come across are more focused on putting up that perfect veneer, and it feels fake and forced and I don’t have time for that so I really seek out the authentic people.

Jessica Null Vealitzek

    • I don’t know that it’s necessarily perfection some want to put forward. It’s just a discomfort with showing a lot of emotion.
    • But I see your point. Black people seem more willing to let that emotion out.

Melanie

    • RACIST!

Jessica Null Vealitzek

    • Cheeky.
    • Can I tell you a story? I was on a plane last year and a large black family was seated all around me. As the plane takes off, they all start laughing and making joyful noises and I say to the man next to me, “Is this your first time flying?” and he says, “No, we just love it!” No white family would do that.

Melanie

    • True. Ask yourself, why did you ask him that?

Jessica Null Vealitzek

    • Because they were SO into it. I figured, this must be their first time.

Melanie

    • But still, would I think they were “so” into it or just having a good time? See what I mean?
    • You should see my family ride the Metra. We howl because, well, we’re funny and we’re cracking jokes. We’re crazy and enjoy each other.

Jessica Null Vealitzek

    • Yes – I think white people (the ones I know) are more reserved, so even if we thought it was fun, we wouldn’t be so open about it–unless everyone else was open about it.
    • Or unless we were drunk.

Melanie

    • Just curious, if that was a boisterious white family would you think, hmmm first time?

Jessica Null Vealitzek

    • I think I would, yes.

Melanie

    • Maybe so, maybe not, but it’s important to probe ourselves (ouch).

Jessica Null Vealitzek

    • Yuck.

Melanie

    • And ask ourselves those questions because we find out more about ourselves and where we sit with things.

Jessica Null Vealitzek

    • Yes – exactly. And that’s part of why that story has stuck with me. Also, because I just love and am jealous of being able to find that much joy in something you’ve done, as he said, “a million times.” And being able to express it so openly.

Melanie

    • [Responding to my earlier comment about needing to be drunk to be expressive] Yes and I don’t like drunk white people. That’s when the inhibitions drop and the comments can easily start flying.
    • Do you remember when we went to that Cubs game and on the bus ride home this guy just randomly tells me that he thinks black people are cool.
    • That sucked. It was like a hush fell over the bus and I was so embarrassed.

Jessica Null Vealitzek

    • Yes – I think he wouldn’t have said that if he wasn’t drunk, but it came from a real place in him that is worried about being racist and not wanting to be.
    • I think we white people can be self-conscious about all our thoughts because we worry something we think or do or say is racist.

Melanie

    • I think there’s grades of racism. I think that everyone’s afraid of being a “big bad racist” and so they back away from conversations or avoid probing their own thoughts, for fear of what they’ll find.
    • We all have “isms” and judgments that we make, if we want to grow as people we need to address these issues, have honest conversations.

Jessica Null Vealitzek

Yes. Few people consider themselves racist, but there are many grades, as you say.

Melanie

    • I always say if you wouldn’t say something like that to a white person then don’t say it to a black person.

Jessica Null Vealitzek

    • Good point.

Melanie

    • But even just out of the blue pointing that out, hurts.
    • Just feeling that he needed to say that, make a statement “YOU KNOW I LIKE BLACK PEOPLE.” Well, OK, why wouldn’t you like black people? Why do you feel the need to say that? What are you really thinking?
    • Here I am having a good time, then out of left field someone is clearly seeing my color, but they’re telling me they’re OK with it.
    • It had the same effect on me as if he would have said, “You know, I really don’t like black people.”

Jessica Null Vealitzek

    • That is such an important point.

Melanie

    • To show you how much that kind of stuff hurts, after I got home, I cried. I cried and cried because it’s like damn. I let my guard down and then out of left field here this comes.
    • I even found myself thinking that I should have known something like that could happen, especially since I was at a Cubs game.

Jessica Null Vealitzek

    • Huh, unfortunately true.
    • Back to an earlier question, Do you act differently with your friends who are white?

Melanie

    • I do act a little differently. I think with my black friends I’m more relaxed, more open.
    • With my white ones I’m more reserved because I don’t want to feel like I’m the “entertainer.”
    • I also, though, don’t know if it’s because my black friends that I have here I’ve known longer than many of my white friends.
    • Of course there’s some white friends I’ve had since elementary school, and I’m 100% myself with them.

Jessica Null Vealitzek

    • As someone with an interest in American history, especially the Civil War, I’ve always wanted to ask you about your family history. Were your ancestors slaves?

Melanie

    • Yes, we were owned by the Nulls.
    • Actually, we’re pretty lucky to be able to trace our family history back to slavery because since a lot of us couldn’t read or write, as it was against the law, a lot of the history is lost. Also because people don’t want to pass on the oral histories.

Jessica Null Vealitzek

Can you say more?

Melanie

    • The previous generations didn’t always want to talk about our history. There’s often a shame that comes with being a slave. It’s just like how people feel ashamed when they are marginalized, abused, raped. All of that and more happened to us, so many from generations ago didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t want to relive it.
      That’s pervasive even today. I remember my grandmother mentioned to me that her and my grandfather would drive dozens of miles out of the way to visit a church because the direct route would take them through a town where “they lynched that poor man.” I began asking her questions and she changed the subject as well as gave me a stern look that told me: Don’t ask.
    • But on my mom’s side they came from a plantation in Kentucky, I believe.
    • On my dad’s mother’s side we are related to Frederick Douglas and and fought alongside the abolitionists. We have a knife in our family that John Brown gave to my relative for protection. On my dad’s father’s side, we came north to Kansas with the exodusters.

Jessica Null Vealitzek

    • Wow. I am so asking you more about this later.

Melanie

    • Yeah, it’s a rich history and I love it.

Jessica Null Vealitzek

    • I actually just found out through research that my ancestors in Virginia owned slaves. We also have a guy who left Canada to join the Union Army as soon as he turned 18. So, a mixed bag.

Melanie

    • I think that’s what we all are. A mixed bag.
    • I’ve got whites in my family, I’m sure you’ve got blacks in yours. We are a melting pot, we should just recognize and *respect* differences.

Jessica Null Vealitzek

    • One more question. Does it annoy you when I say things like “Girl, you crazy.” Cuz you know I always do that.

Melanie

    • Again, I call it the white man rule, stemming from journalism. If you wouldn’t write something about a 40-year-old white man because it sounds odd, then there’s no need to do it to a black guy.
    • i.e. Jason Smith, who is black, was arrested for stealing a car
    • Jason Smith, who is white, was arrested for stealing…
    • You get the idea.
    • So if IF you were a person who said “Guuurrrlll you crazy,” to anyone, then fine, but don’t bust out the ebonics just for me. It’s insulting
    • I’ve been dealing with that forever. I remember in high school, I gave a speech that was basically saying, “I’m not your homie. I understand, Hello, how are you.”

Jessica Null Vealitzek

    • That’s the thing. I would say that to anyone, but I’ve stopped myself because I don’t want you to think I’m doing it because you’re black. See, it’s all so complicated.

Melanie

    • But I do have a girlfriend who is blond haired and blue-eyed and as hood rat as they come. (She grew up in Cleveland and spent some time in Detroit too.) So when she says it, she’s just being herself. No disrespect.
    • But when Jill* says that shit, I call her out on it because she wouldn’t say it to her white friends.

Jessica Null Vealitzek

    • Right. And I have no street cred, which is why I don’t want to bust it out, but sometimes it just comes to mind, you know?

Melanie

    • No–does it come to mind period or just with me?

Jessica Null Vealitzek

    • It comes to mind, period. With all my friends. Different sayings, ways of speaking, etc. Things I hear. It’s like anything else.
    • I do have to run. Thanks so much. Love you more than my luggage!

Melanie

    • Nice. So you want me to carry your luggage now.
    • Yes, missus.

Jessica Null Vealitzek

    • I can’t get anything past you.
    • It’s from the whitest movie on earth.

Melanie

    • Nothing like a little slave humor to wrap this thing up.

*Name changed.

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25 thoughts on “Melanie

  1. I really like this one, Jess! You guys had a good dialogue going & I liked the questions…& answers. Thanks for doing this, ladies – maybe you should make it into a series! Thought-provoking stuff!

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  3. Great interview/dialogue! I really enjoyed the discussion and insight. We just talked about this yesterday at work; as teachers, we see a lot of uncertainty on how to ask–or not ask–similar questions and how to approach/not approach these topics. Thanks for sharing! Definitely some thought-provoking information.

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  6. Thank you so much for visiting and following my blog because now I’ve discovered you and I’m pretty sure we’re kindred spirits. This is a wonderful piece. As is the piece on abortion. I’ve subscribed to your posts and look forward to getting to know you.

    I wish I had a black friend. I live in an almost exclusively white, rural area and while I love it here, I do miss the diversity of city life.

    • I’m so glad — thanks for coming by! Funny, I was just sitting out on my deck, squeezed between houses, trying to glimpse some wildlife (squirrels and robins) and thinking, I wish I lived in a more rural area….

  7. I really like this conversation. And I so loved “Steel Magnolias,” it made me laugh and cry out loud. Any movie that can do that stays up near the top of my favorites list. And I really like that, “We were owned by the Nulls,” line, too. 🙂

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  9. I have had someone say to me that he is so Liberal he can even tolerate people like me. Git. Thank you for the dialogue. Good to touch on Privilege. And would you talk differently with one friend from with another? I certainly would, differently with family, differently with other Scots- thought provoking.

    • Yes, it’s a good point–we all speak and act differently with various sets of people. Black/white is no different, though there’s a lot more self-consciousness there, at least on the part of whites. Thanks for reading.

  10. Wow, Jessica, this post was awesome. I know this is from back in March, but the title jumped out at me when I was visiting your blog. It’s so interesting. Kudos to you and your friend Melanie. I actually do a “talk” for parents on talking about race with children–it’s aimed at both black and white parents which is a tough balance.
    I look at the above dialogue from over here in biracial-land and find that there were certain things where I felt closer to Melanie’s responses and other times when I felt closer to yours.
    I truly have zero street cred and could never pull off a phrase like “girl, you crazy.” That made me laugh though, because I think people have used it around me, thinking they’re making me feel understood or something. That’s when I really feel like the nerdy Jewish girl I am! All so complex.

    • So interesting–you add a whole different perspective. I also have no street cred but once in a while I find myself spurting out a phrase like that–joking in the sense that I clearly am not able to pull it off, but then I worry it comes off a different way–as if I’m making fun of that kind of talk. As you say, so complex.

      • In some ways, you can pull it off better than I can. I’m EXPECTED to have street cred and people are sometimes put off by the fact that I don’t. I’m looking ahead to see how all this unfolds for my 11 year old in a very diverse middle school. She is 1/4 black, but to most appears at least 1/2. (I hate those fractions, but you know what I mean 🙂

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