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"White Girl" Home

Tuesday, January 4, 2000, 08:57 a.m. Pacific

'White Girl?': The story, and dialogue, continue

In the fall, Scene carried a story written by Washington Post reporter Lonnae O'Neal Parker called "White Girl?" In it, O'Neal Parker talked about herself and her cousin, Kim McClaren, who lives with her and her family in Washington, D.C. O'Neal Parker is black; her cousin - the daughter of a black father and a white mother - identified herself as white.

McClaren moved to D.C. from her home in Sandoval, Ill., partly to serve as O'Neal Parker's au pair, partly to get her life on track and partly to get in touch with the black side of her family.

When O'Neal Parker's story ran in The Times, we asked you to read it and tell us what you thought of the piece and the issues it raised. Scores of you did, and we reprinted many of your responses just a few weeks ago and then sent them off to the two cousins.

Now, O'Neal Parker and McClaren have written separate responses of their own, discussing what's happened to them since all this began.

It's a further effort, as many of you asked, to keep this particular conversation on race going.

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Special to The Seattle Times

Since writing "White Girl," here's what I know: Everybody has a story.

People have written and e-mailed me, sent letters to the editor and pulled me up in the ladies room to tell me theirs - tales filled with alienation or guilt or rage or pain. My neighbor is still haunted by the childhood taunts of "Little Black Kathy," and Phyllis, the German woman from my parents hometown, still hears echoes of "Nazi" and "Krauthead."

These are the stories that pockmark us. That help inform who we are, what we become. And they are stories that never, ever go away, even if we don't share them with a soul. In August, when I decided to tell my family's story in The Washington Post, what humbled me most was how many people could relate. And how many others wanted to.

In addition to running in The Washington Post and The Seattle Times, "White Girl" was excerpted (badly) in the national black weekly magazine, Jet. And it seems like I've heard from all quarters. Response has been mostly positive, some negative, and some very shrill voices raised in anger and disagreement. And I've appreciated every one. Because, just for a minute, they gave me something I had never seen before, never really experienced.

An honest dialogue about race.

A time for folks to come together, shed their careful layers, and say what the heck they really think, what's on their minds, repeat the stuff their mamas passed down over dinner - the stuff they teach their kids. It felt like people were willing to bring something of themselves to the table and dish. It felt like the kind of heartfelt exchange that leads to debate, disagreement, and maybe, just maybe, an outside shot at healing. Or at least the awareness that not everybody is coming from the same place. For my money, it's the things we bottle up inside, the things we don't say about race that wind up hurting us the most.

In some of the letters, folks have suggested that I have baggage, scars, unresolved issues. I turned that one over in my mind for a while before I laid claim to it. I do have baggage. Such that if I tried to declare it all, it would take me hours to clear customs. But I also know I am not alone in that. It is both a national affliction, and it is specific to my house. I have issues and my cousin has issues and since we are close family, they duel, and sometimes dance.

People always ask me how Kim is doing, how we are getting along. And they seem surprised when I say we're fine. Surprised that we're not having marathon racial debates.

I consider myself a pretty agreeable sort. I mix easily with people and can coast for weeks on the smiles and waves and nods from strangers who let me in their lane. Race doesn't always boil over my front burner. Mostly it simmers. Stays with me like a low-level hum.

So when a neighbor who is married to a black man casually tells me that she hopes against hope that their child doesn't come out with nappy hair, I don't call her on it. I don't let it pierce my own nappy head. And I make a quick mental note to limit my nappy-headed 5-year-old's time at her house.

In the "Star Wars" series, there are scenes where, with the wave of a hand, Luke Skywalker uses the Force to deflect potentially harmful projectiles headed his way. I feel like that a lot. Almost casually, I wave away most pointed racial projectiles. It is part and parcel of the kind of everyday, nondramatic slights that punctuate all of our lives. It doesn't matter that my neighbor didn't even realize she was being offensive. The net effect is the same. Sometimes an exchange like that becomes a teachable moment, an opportunity to sensitize people to a different reality. But most often, they do not. We are too busy living our lives, raising our children, and too weary of confrontation to want to educate other grown folks who may or may not get it.

As for Cousin Kim and I, we have settled into a comfortable routine. She has been adjusting to a new school, and a new schedule and the growing responsibilities of adulthood. Her profile has increased. She is occasionally recognized on the street, and she appeared on the "Queen Latifah" talk show last month. They wanted me to come on as well, but I declined. The producers begged, saying Kim had a revelation for me, but I told them I take my revelations in my living room, not on national television.

Kim's revelation, it turns out, was that she no longer considers herself white. At least not strictly. Since the show, she's even managed to slip a couple of references to herself as a black girl into our conversations, but I let them pass without comment. That's because, mostly, I don't know what to say.

I wrote "White Girl" because I saw my cousin's experience as a metaphor - a way for us to talk out some very complicated, painful issues. But ultimately I realized "black girl" doesn't hang well on her either, even if I want it to.

When my cousin calls herself black, I want to tell her, you know not what you do, you're unprepared to deflect all the projectiles the world will send your way. But mostly I want to say, you're 21. Be quiet. You don't know who you are yet. But I say nothing. Because it is not my choice to make. Because Kim will have to find her own way, fight her own battles. And because this is unchartered territory in the Race Place, a brand new frontier.

And something tells me we'll be mapping it out, together, for a while.

By Kim McClaren
Special to The Seattle Times

I'm one year older, but I still live in the basement. Some would say that I am still white, but to see it through my eyes, I'm just a light-skinned sister trying to make it. Racial identity is usually not a choice, but for a child of an interracial relationship, it's the biggest decision of my life.

When I first moved to Washington, I was very green. I was unaware of the changes that I would be facing within the next 18 months. I came out here to get off the dead-end road that my life was taking. It was a hard decision to make, but I realized that this is what I had to do. If I wanted something positive to happen in my life, I had to go where the positive things were.

I knew it was going to be something that I was not ready for, but in order to learn new things, you must first adjust to the environment that you are in, not to the one that you are accustomed to. I suppose this would be around the time when I began to realize how different my soon-to-be "two worlds" really were.

My first real experience with my new culture came the first time I saw my cousin doing her daughter's hair. I had never actually seen hair done before, and I think that she kind of understood that there were a lot of things that were very new to me. So, as time went on, she felt as though I had graduated from "Ethnic Hair 101," and by no choice of her own, I was given the opportunity to give it try. Although my braids still aren't as tight as I would like them to be, I feel as though I have made progress.

I have lived a majority of my life as a "white girl." I hate the idea that society can label people by either the way they act or speak, or even by the people they hang out with. I don't want to be labeled black or white, because labels aren't meant for people, they're meant for canned vegetables. I have become more socially conscious of who I am, and the experiences that I have had living on the "other side" have opened my eyes in such a way that it would be hard to return to my former way of thinking.

Someone once asked me if there is a difference in the lifestyles, and my answer to that question is no. However, there is a culture difference, no matter what anyone says. It doesn't matter what culture you experience, it's always going to be different from your own.

I have to give credit to my parents. They have been together for almost 28 years; they have stood the test of time. So for them to stay as strong as they have sends a positive message to a child who was always teased because her hair was curly, or because her eyes and lips were too big. I look back on some of the things that people said to me and, yeah, it still hurts to think about it. But I realized that they were the ones who made me stronger. My mother once told me that "sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me." I think anyone who has ever been teased knows that this is another myth that our parents told us to make sure we stayed innocent just a little while longer.

My parents raised me without a color line. They taught me not to judge anyone. I suppose I was raised in a household where the words of Dr. Martin Luther King rang true, " . . . children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character . . . " They always taught me to have pride in what I did and who I was. I have been blessed with some amazing people in my life to help me avoid ignorance.

Since the article was published, a lot has happened. It's amazing how you can go from being "Cousin Kim: nanny extraordinaire" to being recognized by people in Union Station (in Washington, D.C). A lot of people have written to me - some were encouraging, others were tearful, and then there were those who told me that I shouldn't allow myself to be pressured into something that I didn't want to do.

I want to say thank you to those who took the time to sit down and think before they began writing. In my hometown, some were shocked to read some of the things in the story. Even some of my closest friends were disgusted, but I gave them a chance to voice their opinions.

I tried to explain to them that this wasn't my way of retaliating against any one person, but a way to express some of the opinions that I had and was never really able to share with them. Some understood. Others just became angrier. They couldn't understand where my cousin was coming from, and when I told them that "you just had to be there," they were still reluctant to see my view.

I began business school in September. Some of my classmates weren't sure whether they knew me or not - they may have graduated from high school with me, or maybe I was someone that they met through a friend, or maybe the girl who waited on them at McDonald's.

For about a week, some were afraid to ask if we had met before, but driving to school with a girl from one of my classes one day, I began to talk with her about Halle Berry and Eric Benet. It was ironic that she had brought it up, because in the Sept. 23 edition of Jet magazine, there were our faces (on the inside cover). And my friend said, "You look like the girl that's in my mother's copy of Jet."

I casually looked at her and said, "I am."

It was so funny to see the reaction on her face, because she had the same reaction as my classmates. It's nice to know that there are young readers out there who are actually interested in what's going on in today's world.

I have taken time to explore many opportunities, and to find out who I am, and now I have the answer. I am a strong woman who has hurdled several obstacles to get where I am. I still have many more doors to go through before I finally get to the place where I am going. Some would say that is still avoiding the question, but I am still adjusting to the fact that I am 21. A lot has changed in the last few months; I am still taking baby steps into adulthood. Of course there are those who believe adulthood begins at 18, but you're still adjusting - your body and emotions. I have learned to be more patient with myself, and have realized that there are those willing to help me when I need it.

So for me to say that I am one thing or another would be denying both sides of my heritage. I feel as though I have the best of both worlds, it's just that I have been denied one longer than the other. I am beginning to embrace my "black roots" and it will take some time to adjust into my new skin, but I think that it has been worth the wait.

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