I’m handing my White Card back. I honestly don’t even know if there is a White Card, but I keep hearing that there’s a Black Card, so a White Card must exist, right? Well, I’m handing mine back just as soon as I can figure out to who to return it to. There’s just one thing: I’m black. Not a single person has ever looked at me and thought I was white in my entire life. But I’ve had access to some White Privilege. “Privilege” is a trigger word for many people, but my privilege, frankly, is undeniable. For starters, I’m privileged because I’ve managed to stay alive for 35 years on this planet. I’m privileged to be American. I’m privileged to have a college education. I’m privileged to have a Master’s degree. I’m privileged to live in a city of my choice pursuing the career of my choice. My city (New York) and my career (Acting) are both insanely unpredictable and challenging, but I have CHOSEN them of my own free will.
Many of my privileges are linked to an unspoken privilege that I have, that not every black person and not even every person of color has. All jokes aside, I don’t have White Privilege. I’m not white. But I do have what some are calling White-Adjacent Privilege. I saw that phrase in an article about biracial people. By the way, I’m not biracial. I don’t even look remotely biracial. But I’ve always been told I look and sound like an “All-American Girl.” Until pretty recently I took this as a compliment.
I don’t even know who I’m writing this for. I couldn’t tell you if you asked me. We all know that we exist in bubbles now. Comfortable echo-chambers both online and in real life. We, as Americans, express our grief, our anger, our shock, our rage at the mess of constant violence and hatred that our country is, has always been, and is continuing to become only to those who believe exactly as we believe. To those who look exactly like us. Or to those who look like our perfect picture of what America is or what we think it should be– whether that picture is completely diverse or totally homogenous– or maybe even something in between.
Try to define All-American. Can you? I’ll wait. It means “possessing qualities characteristic of American ideals, such as honesty, industriousness, health, and wholesomeness.” I’m not perfect. Not by a long shot. But, sure, I have strived to be honest. I have tried to work hard at everything I do. I’m pretty healthy. And I’m not sure we have the time to unpack the patriarchal and puritan implications of “wholesomeness,” so for the moment I’ll take it too. So what’s the problem? The problem is that I’ve been able to move through the world a heck of a lot more easily than a lot of people of color because of circumstances out of my control. Because of where I was raised, where I went to school, how I walk, how I talk. Here’s where I may lose some of you– it’s not that black people in America aren’t honest, industrious, healthy, and wholesome. It’s that my honesty, industriousness, healthfulness, and wholesomeness have expressed themselves in ways that are immediately recognizable to the dominant culture. To put it bluntly: I don’t scare white people.
Do you know who Lisa Turtle is? She didn’t scare white people either. She was one of the main characters on Saved By The Bell. I was a little younger than the Saved By the Bell gang, but the show was so popular that it was always rerunning and marathoning on TV when I was growing up. Saved By the Bell was “color-blind” in that it followed a group of friends through high school (three white, one hispanic, and one black). Everyone on the show was about as stereotypically All-American as you can get. And Lisa Turtle was no exception. She was pretty & popular, she was on honor roll, she was from a loving and successful family, she was fun, she was funny, she was ambitious, and she was quite clearly the best dressed person at Bayside High. Lisa Turtle was all of that without the show framing her through her blackness. She was just one of the gang. Just a high school kid living life. Just an All-American girl.
I saw myself in Lisa more than in any other character I’d ever seen on TV. While I wasn’t nearly as fashionable or cool as Lisa, whenever I saw Lisa Turtle I thought- THAT’S ME!!!! I GET HER!!!! THAT’S WHO I AM!!!! First of all, except for the fact that I went to an all-girls school, my high school experience was demographically pretty similar to Bayside High. My peers were mostly white with a few black and brown faces sprinkled in. If anything, Bayside High was more diverse than my private school in suburban Seattle. That’s not a good thing, but more on that another time. Lisa Turtle and the rest of the crew mostly just existed in the bubble of their school. We only saw Lisa her in relationship with her parents a handful of times. She was devoid of any cultural particularities. She was “All-American.” And she was oh-so-relatable and oh-so-loveable for it.
It is possible for that which helps you to also hurt you. I say this in 2018 as someone who loves this country. As someone who is proud to be American. Who is proud to be a black American. Who is proud to be the daughter of immigrants. The concept of the “All-American” girl is deeply flawed because it has, to date, meant that its subject has no culture but American culture. Aside from those of us with indigenous roots, we are all immigrants. As I heard Ruby Sales say when she came to speak at my church earlier this year, “American culture is a whole lot of everything and a little bit of nothing.”
The Saved By The Bell color-blind bubble was a lie. I knew this as a kid and I know this now. There is no such thing as color-blind. Wherever we go, we bring all of who we are. My life mirrored Lisa Turtle’s in that at school I was “just one of the gang.” But when I was home? My “otherness” was not so far off. Some examples: My parents have both been in this country for a long time but they speak with considerable accents (that I LOVE). My grandparents lived with us on and off throughout the 90s when they stuck here as refugees during Liberia’s civil war. My family’s relationship to our Catholic faith was linked to our Liberian heritage. Food when I was sick wasn’t chicken soup, but peppeh soup. The list goes on and on…
This might be complicated to understand, but one thing I want to make clear is that for the most part I really haven’t tried to be “All-American.” Translation- I haven’t tried to be “white” or to “not scare white people.” I grew up in the suburbs of Seattle. I sound how I sound and I move through the world how I move through the world because we pick these things up by osmosis. I have no shame in how I talk or how I walk. I love the friends I grew up with, white, black, brown, yellow or otherwise. I’m a fully expressed human and I’m proud as hell of who I am and of being from The Pacific Northwest. Period.
But, you learn pretty quickly growing up in this country that race makes Americans really uncomfortable. That there’s a very narrow view of what “black” is and for the most part it isn’t great. Being All-American won’t stop you from learning this.
You might learn it when your class is going on a field trip to downtown Seattle and one of your classmates is scared of the city because “there are black people there.”
You might learn it when one of your friends tells you she hates when Oprah “acts black.”
You might learn it when that same friends tells you that you aren’t really black.
You might learn it in the 6th grade when your teacher wheels in the TV to watch the OJ Simpson verdict and you don’t really understand who this man is or if he really killed anyone but you pray that he is innocent because you are the only black kid at the school besides your little brother and everyone seems really angry and you don’t want them to be angry at you.
Or you might learn it senior year of college when you’ve just come back from studying abroad and you feel worldly and womanly and you’re making out with a blond All-American boy and you’re having fun but you don’t want it to go any further and you tell him to stop but he pulls you close and says “don’t pretend you don’t want it, you’re black.”
I’m not telling you this for pity. I’m telling you this, whoever you are, because it’s my truth. I never thought that Lisa Turtle was just “All-American.” I just thought she left her culture at home. For all I knew her parents could’ve been Jamaican or Afro-Cuban or from the South. She just didn’t carry that with her to Bayside High. Things were less complicated that way (Just FYI we met Lisa’s parents a couple times and they were doctors- basically cut from the Huxtable cloth).
For a lot of people in my generation who grew up in liberal, affluent suburban areas it was seen as impolite or too uncomfortable to talk about race. So we all participated in maintaining the lie of Color-Blindness. And here we are. And I’m wondering who was served by our politeness? The KKK has reemerged and people that I thought loved me seem to be threatened when I say #blacklivesmatter, as if that means that their lives don’t matter too.
The younger generation is changing things out of necessity. I gotta say, Grownish is one of my favorite shows on TV. Where Saved By The Bell ignored racial/social/political/economical differences, Grownish builds its storylines around the way we are constantly intersecting and clashing as Americans. Zoey Johnson IS All-American and she gets to bring all of herself to the table. Her friends have different backgrounds and ideals and they are stepping into adulthood.
I will always love Saved By the Bell because seeing Lisa meant so much to me. Bless its heart, but the show is a hot mess of racial and gender stereotypes that would never float today. I could talk for days about what storylines Lisa was given and what they said about her place in the world. But my point is plainly this:
We all come from somewhere.
This is not an indictment of all white people, but of white-washing.
We are at a tipping point, and we need to talk. We need more empathy.
This is the story of one Lisa Turtle.
But your story is just as important as mine.
So tell it.
We are headed deep down a path of hatred that cannot end well. We need to turn this thing around, quick.
There can be no reconciliation without truth.
Maybe you don’t agree with all I’ve said.
Maybe you are confused.
Maybe my experience is very similar to your experience except for that one thing I said…
This is it. The time is now.
So tell your truth. We’ll all be better for it.