Kristin Prentiss Ott, M.D.

What I Wish White Women Knew About Being a Woman of Color (Guest Post)

In “I’m Sorry. I’m Listening.” I extended an invitation to publish a guest post on “what I wish white women knew about being a woman of color.” I am honored to publish the words of my friend, Sherlonya Turner.

We met as Resident Advisors (RAs) in one of the only all women dorms at the University of Michigan. She is smart and funny and brave to write this essay. She blogs at Head of State Cakes and you can follow her on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest.


 

An Introduction

I’m a divorced mother in her mid-thirties. Harry Truman’s story has helped me through hard times more than once. I can knit, sew and do all sorts of crafts. I love planning things. Though I’m out of shape right now, I’ve completed a marathon, 3 half marathons, and a 10 mile race. I enjoy learning hula-hoop tricks. I graduated from the University of Michigan. I earned my Masters degree at Wayne State University. I am an agnostic who finds herself holding her hands toward the sky, chin lifted in the same direction to express gratitude when I’m feeling particularly grateful.

And I am black.

Sometimes days go by when I don’t think about race at all. Sometimes weeks. On occasion, I might even go months.

I recently began a project that explores the history of black-white American race riots. Despite my love for American history and my love for projects, several of my friends were surprised to see me dig into a project like this one. Over time, I have developed the habit of not talking about race.

A few years ago, I was in a conversation with a white woman, a friend. Race came up, and during the conversation, I said something that offended (hurt?) her. I had no idea at the time. I found out when she emailed me to detail her objection to what I had said.

Her response left me feeling like it wasn’t worth it to attempt these conversations. Despite having already become selective about these exchanges, I felt that I had chose poorly in this case.  I had let my guard down. I took a shellacking.

Then, I retreated.

Confessions

I secretly wish that prejudiced people who wish to hold on to their point of view would just own it. It takes a lot of work to examine one’s point of view; everyone isn’t up for it. That’s the way it is. Sometimes, selfishly, I think about how many interactions would be simpler if these particular cards were out on the table.

I have a friend who was asked by a complete stranger at a restaurant why black people take so many napkins? She answered something like, “We’re told at our meetings to do that in order to stick it to the man.” While I wouldn’t have responded that way, I understood her impulse. Many of us endure humiliating question after humiliating question, often out of nowhere. For example, in college, I was once asked by someone who lived in my hall whether a hair in the sink was a pubic hair, or whether it was a black person’s hair.

There are days when the only other black person I interact with is my son.  These are the moments when (I think that) I understand just how easy it must be for white people to primarily interact with only white people. I primarily interact with white people. I barely even notice it.

My son goes to a school where most of the children are white. When I pick him up, sometimes I just scan the crowd for a dark one. Upon catching myself doing that, I think about what it feels like for you in a context where you’re picking a child of color out of a crowd for one reason or another.

When house hunting, I drove around the neighborhoods where I was interested. In addition to observing the general condition of the houses, and whether I saw people outside enjoying the neighborhood, I wanted to make sure that I saw some black people. I had zero desire to feel like an interloper.

It’s somewhere between awkward and uncomfortable when someone mentions diversity in a group setting and then you immediately see a few people looking at you.

My boyfriend of five years is white. So was the one before that. And the one before that. I worry about how this impacts my son. I hope that my choices to be involved with white men doesn’t somehow make him feel that black men are a second choice, or that I have purposefully avoided them.

If you’ve been pregnant, remember that feeling when you were visibly pregnant and, at times, people seemed to treat you less like a person and more like a body? Remember how some people touched you without your consent? Remember how people asked you the same questions over and over again? Remember how sometimes people didn’t like your answers, and you could see it in their reactions? Remember feeling like you had to have a conversation about your pregnancy that you were bored with, or that you felt was invasive, or that you otherwise didn’t feel like having? Sometimes, walking around visibly black feels like that.

On the other hand, other times, those same things feel fine.

Fears

One day, my son came home from school upset because another child accused him of something on the playground that he said that he didn’t do. That is a part of life–child life, parent life. However, what followed scared me. When the child, let’s call him Gerald, told the person in charge the story where he accused my boy, as an aside, he said that the person who did it was either my son or another child–another child with brown skin. Despite the fact that Gerald essentially said, “One of the brown children did it.” My son had to endure repetitive questioning. Gerald, apparently, did not. I wonder if the other brown-skinned child was questioned. This was at a school that values diversity and an environment of mutual respect. This is a school that my son loves. He has been known to sleep with his yearbooks.

When I tell my son that he should always have a receipt in hand when he buys something at a store and that he should avoid putting his hands in his pockets, he doesn’t understand. When I tell him that there are some people out there who see people our color and think that we’re up to no good, so we need to take extra care not to give them reasons to be suspicious, he looks like he’s going to cry.

My boy is eleven. I watch as the world begins to see him differently.

It scares me.

Final words

I want you to know that this race thing is complicated for everyone who engages with it.

Also, for dialogue, trust is important. If I didn’t trust Kristin, I would never have written this essay.


 

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Kristin Prentiss Ott, M.D.

Author of the viral post: 10 Things to Know Before Your Next Visit to the Emergency Department. Board certified emergency medicine physician, wife, mother, aspiring novelist.
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17 Comments

  1. Karyn poslick

    Thank you so much for sharing. You’re right, as a white person who is more with white people than with people of color, it is easy to forget that anyone feels differently than I do in day to day situations. It helps me to hear your honest feelings, helps me to be aware of the differences you experience just being you. I am very sorry you have any need to teach your son anything different than I taught my daughters. It is terribly wrong and it makes me heart sick. I believe in God. I believe He made you and me and everyone else in this world. He loves you and that’s all I need to know to care for you and want only good things for you.

    1. sherlonya

      Thank you for your kind words! On the other side of things, I try to remember that white people have experiences, too, that are uncomfortable that I’m less likely to experience. For example, there have been several occasions when a white friend has repeated something that someone said to them that made them very uncomfortable….and my response in those situations was something like, “See, THAT is the kind of stuff that I almost never have to hear because people don’t say that in front of me.” Their discomfort is real, too. The sickness you expressed feeling is real, too. Anyway, thank you for reading this and also for taking time to respond!

  2. dawnkinster

    I’ve read, and shared this, because I think it’s important. Sometimes we live in our own isolated worlds. I had a friend at work a few years ago looking to move out to the suburbs from Detroit. I suggested that the area near me is beautiful. She asked if there were any black people living there. I was stunned. I had not considered the fact she was black to be part of the equation. Because I didn’t know. Thank you for pointing out again that things are not the same for all of us.

    1. sherlonya

      Thank you for reading this, sharing it, and adding to the conversation!

  3. Kassi

    I have been reading your Head Of State Cakes. Sherlonya, it’s brilliant. I had no idea it was literally each President w/your own recipe (Clinton’s is perfect!)
    You’re beginning to remind me of a hipper Doris Kearnes Goodwin, with your fascination and knowledge of our President’s. You are an definitely inspiration for us all to keep learning.
    Thank you for a whole new method to learn about history.

    1. sherlonya

      You just made my day (night?). Thank you!!

      1. kassi

        Well, I seriously have been looking for a new favorite historian. I’ve decided it is definitely you…my other response to you was very heavy on my part, because I’m so angry at the stupidity of the country.
        But you, very clever woman, have moved beautifully in it, and I think I will be sharing your site with many!

  4. Kate Blair

    What a beautiful post that shows such complexity in so few words. Although I am white, my son is black. I had the same experience with him (at 7 years old) that he was questioned repeatedly by someone while the white children were taken at their word. Another time a black friend of his was questioned repeatedly by a white adult on a soccer field. The timing was close together and they shocked me to my core. I had prepared myself for this but I think I probably always hoped that everyone telling me it would happen were wrong. I suppose I have been far too optimistic to believe I didn’t have to teach my son how he will be treated differently than his cousins and white friends. Needless to say, the conversations have started now and no matter the amount of reading and asking, I feel ill-prepared. But thank you for being so brave, you are helping people like me who want to learn and understand – for all our children.

    1. sherlonya

      Hey, optimism helps, too!! And thanks for sharing a part of your story!

  5. Kassi

    Thank you, Sherlonya. Your writing has shown you to be an intelligent, educated professional, as well as a very loving mother. I love that you hula hoop!
    But I still felt a lingering pain for you. It’s the things you barely said, the things you brushed past. The ‘white friend’ who, apparently didn’t agree with you on a racial issue, who chose to email you with details of her objections. That isn’t just cruel, it’s cowardly on her part.
    Of course you retreat. I understand your issues with trust. How could you not?
    You’re inherent awareness of not ‘being an interloper’ when house hunting is one more thing you have to accept. This alone makes me feel ashamed once again to have white skin.
    I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. It’s just that in spite of how successful you are, how deeply ingrained you are in the fabric of this country, you still can’t let your guard down.
    Sherlonya, it’s not your job to change this. It is ours. In the meantime, keep writing and creating and contributing to the world.
    Hug your boy! Now I must go brush up on Harry Truman.

  6. Mickey

    ESHET CHAYIL!!! to two beautiful brave women, Sherlonya and my wife.

    1. sherlonya

      Hi Mickey! Thank you. I had to look up “eshet chayil!” I got to learn something new! Thanks for that, too!

  7. Laura Goetsch

    The simile to being pregnant and how people interact with you is so helpful! It really illuminates what it feels like to be African American and have people interact with you as if you were only a body. Thank you for putting yourself out there, Sherlonya.

    1. sherlonya

      Laura, thank you for reading this, and thanks for taking the time to respond!!

  8. Holly

    Thanks for sharing Sherlonya, I’d love to hear more about your research in the project on race riots. Your writing is very easy to read, gives such great context for who you are, and gives great insight and opportunity for thought. The last sentence drove it home, fear and the challenges in these conversations make trust so very important. I’m researching a little Harry Truman today!

    1. sherlonya

      Hi Holly! It makes me so happy to know that you’re looking into President Truman. About my race riot project, you can find it here: http://www.riotnumbers.com/. This project is slow-going because I don’t want to spend all of my spare moments reading about violence. In fact, I’ve taken to drawing animals in bikinis just to counterbalance the tough stuff!

      1. Holly

        Truman has been on my short list of some of my favorite presidents, from a project i did in college, but now I’m going to go back and read into it more…

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