Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Role reversal: Whites tell what it’s like to live as a minority

December 20, 1992 

By Jonathan Tilove

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Most whites wouldn’t be caught dead where Liz Hogan lives.

It’s a nice neighborhood. Quiet. Safe. Well-kept. Middle-class.

But, with the exception of Hogan and a few other white folks, it’s a black neighborhood.

“The neighbors are great,” says Hogan. “But as soon as I make a left at the bottom of the street and nobody knows who I am, I’m white and that’s all there is to it.”

Hogan knows something most other whites don’t. She knows what it’s like to be white when most everybody else in the neighborhood or the school, at work or in church is black. She knows what it’s like to be in the minority.

Still, there is a big difference. For blacks, the minority experience is immutable, inescapable, oppressive. For whites, it is transitory or voluntary, incomplete. No matter how much they may be a minority in a particular situation, they are still white in white America.

Yet for those whites who, by choice or circumstance, have lived it, it is an experience that can transform the way they think about blacks, about whites and about themselves.

Stereotypes give way to individuals.

“Living together 18 hours a day for six months a year forces one to see a person, not a race,” writes Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., of his years playing professional basketball, a game dominated by blacks, for the New York Knicks.

Racism, and its impact, become more obvious.

“I am even more outraged by Willie Hortonism because I live with the consequences of it every day. I see the self-esteem problems,” says Ormond Smythe, the white academic dean at Nashville’s historically black Fisk University.

In some circumstances, color fades as a factor.

“At first you stand out like a sore thumb,” says LaDonna Greene of joining the almost entirely black First Baptist Church in Vienna, Va., a year ago with her mother, Glenda Curtwright. Now Curtwright sings in the senior choir, and Greene stands and sways and claps with as much joy and abandon as anyone in the congregation.

“It’s not a black church,” says Greene.

“It’s our church,” says her mother.

“Sometimes when I go to sleep at night I’m thinking this is messed up, with some people saying, from the white side, ‘What’s he doing there?’ and from the black side, ‘Why’s he here?’ ” says Gilad Landau, the Israeli place-kicker on the otherwise all-black Grambling State football team. “But most of the time I’m very accepted. . . . This is my family.”

But others, including Liz Hogan, remain perpetually obvious and out of place.

“You know,” says Hogan. “It really isn’t any fun being in the minority. It really isn’t.”

On the bus, she says, children stare. “They wonder, ‘What is she doing here?’ “

“You can’t blame them,” she says. “I used to wonder, ‘What am I doing here?’ “

In the stores, clerks sometimes glare. “You think, well, maybe it’s just because they’re nasty. And then you think maybe it’s because you’re white. And then you think this is how black people feel when they’re always screaming ‘racism.’ “

For the most part, whites steer clear of situations in which they would be outnumbered and vulnerable.

In Washington, as in most cities, blacks and whites live largely apart. There are vast stretches of D.C. that most whites would never contemplate going to. Most would be reluctant to drive through Hogan’s neighborhood in far southeast Washington, let alone live there. They watch the local evening news, which sometimes seems little more than a catalog of black crime, and draw their conclusion – black neighborhoods are menacing.

According to most studies, when the black population in a neighborhood exceeds 8 percent, whites start moving out and the neighborhood turns black.

Not always completely, though.

When Hogan’s neighborhood went from white to black almost overnight after the 1968 riots, her family stayed. They liked it there. She was going to a nearby Catholic school. Her father, a psychiatrist, worked at the nearby state hospital. And her parents were liberals. They had lost the lease on their previous home, back in the late 1950s, for inviting a black couple to a party.

Hogan, 41, left Washington after high school but returned home a few years ago, divorced and with a young son. Her street of sturdy brick homes and tidy lawns looked exactly the same as it always had, but the few remaining whites, like her father, 82, were vestiges of an earlier time, living an odd and awkward existence. They are in a black community, but not of it.

They are, says University of California social psychologist Thomas Pettigrew, victims of the “solo effect,” in which people who for whatever reason are different from most of those around them feel as if they are onstage, being watched and judged by others.

Lynn Cunningham, 27, is in the distinct minority where he lives, works and goes to school, and while he is comfortable in all three settings, each has a different feel.

Cunningham says the only time he has ever felt really odd at Howard University, where he is one of a handful of white undergraduates, was when a German television correspondent asked him if he felt like a “pioneer.”

“Maybe in some stupid, bizarre way I am, but it’s not something I think about,” says Cunningham. “It’s just natural that I’m here.”

At work, in the stacks of the Library of Congress, he gets along well, though he says that some of his black co-workers think that their supervisor, who is black, favors him. It is not true, he says, but figures the suspicion has something to do with the racial hierarchy in government offices on Capitol Hill.

“It kills me. Here the city is 70 to 75 percent black but when you go on Capitol Hill you wonder, ‘Where are they?’ and when you find them they’re behind the lunch counter serving you.”

As for his mostly black neighborhood on the outskirts of Capitol Hill where this fall a young white woman, a new arrival, was found murdered in an alley off his street, Cunningham describes two scenes.

First, there was the old black man who called out to him as he walked by, “Yo white boy, yo white boy, yo white boy.” Cunningham stopped and the man simply asked, “How you doing today?”

“I said, ‘Fine,’ ” recalls Cunningham. “I’d like to think he was pleased I was there. It was very cool.”

But then, he says, there was the young black girl, age 12 or 13, who “got in my face and just kept saying, ‘Rodney King, Rodney King, Rodney King.’ I just kept on walking.”

For many whites in black settings, there comes the time when no matter how much they think they fit in, they are once again simply white, the converse of what blacks complain about when they are among whites.

Witness a recent scene at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a 90 percent black D.C. public school.

A white English teacher at Ellington received an anonymous letter from a “fellow teacher,” complaining that, “My experience with blacks is there is little gray matter there to draw out.”

Copies of the letter were disseminated among faculty and students, and on a recent Friday, a class of about 20 blacks and three white seniors grappled with questions of race.

Some excerpts:

Nathaniel Gilbert, a white student: “Now people are talking about how white people are evil. That’s too bad. I don’t need any of this crap from either side. I’m just here doing my job, going to school.”

Winston Hodge, another white student: “Just now I was talking to one of the [black] girls I usually get along with pretty well and there was this little instant of suspicion and that’s terrible because this idiot, this fool writes this letter and it causes separation when what it should cause is for the two of us to come together.”

Dyron Holmes, a black friend: “No offense, Winston, but it’s nice watching you go through this.”

Then a few minutes later, this exchange:

Deanna Johnson, white, who previously went to mostly white suburban Catholic schools: “Half of the scholarships I’d be eligible for except for the fact that I’m white. In Miss Shafer’s room there was a contest for young black writers. I can write but I can’t enter because I’m white . . . I get upset about that stuff because I’d like [to enter] but I can’t because I’m white.”

Angela McNair: “You just got a little piece of what we have to deal with every day of our lives.”

Deanna Johnson: “I’m starting to get an idea of what you’re feeling and it sucks.”

Indeed, the Ellington experience can transform whites.

Jordana Utter fell in love with black culture while attending Ellington, where she was valedictorian in 1990.

“I think African-American culture is much more attractive than European-American culture,” says Utter, now a 19-year-old sophomore studying drama at Yale. “I have a lot of problems with my culture. The white race has oppressed and enslaved and tortured more people than any race in history and I find that absolutely despicable.”

Like some whites who have been in the minority, Utter now finds it “very odd” to be in a place like Yale were there are so few blacks.

“I’m very much more comfortable in a black crowd than I am in a white crowd,” says Rosina Miller Berkey, the daughter of an inner-city pastor, who has lived most of her life in mostly black communities in and around Cleveland.

“Her way of talking, her way of thinking is more attuned to the black community,” says her best friend, Regina Stoltz Fus, who is black. “I’ve known her all my life. I know what makes her tick. I really do forget that she’s white.”

Jane Johnson, the only white in her apartment building in northeast Washington, is pleased that black friends no longer say “oops” when they complain about whites in her presence. Indeed, after 20 years in the black community, she no longer really thinks of herself as white.

“I really don’t see myself as either one,” says Johnson, who is raising three children, the product of her marriage to a black man from whom she is now separated.

“Jane is just Jane,” says her neighbor and best friend, Veronica Moore, who never really knew a white person before Johnson.

Two years ago Johnson moved to Idaho, but she only lasted a month. There were too few blacks, and even sympathetic whites could not believe that she had enjoyed living in the heart of a big city’s black community. “The way I was received was like, ‘We know you’re so glad to be out of there, you escaped.’ It made me feel uncomfortable.”

“I felt very out of sync,” says Johnson. “I was miserable.”


Written by jonathantilove

July 24, 2022 at 8:33 pm

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