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ON QUAKER IDENTITY: HOW DO YOU TELL A FISH IT'S WET?

When I was a teenager at Germantown Friends School, I envied the black kids. After graduating its first black student in 1958, the school had made a concerted effort to integrate in the 60's.  From my point of view, what was notable about these mostly scholarship kids was the fact that they belonged to a definite culture.  They seemed so easy about it, hanging out in relaxed groups, sometimes calling each other brother and sister. They shared something warm, and I wished I could be included. It was the era of 'Black is Beautiful', and yes, it was.

If I'd been able to put words to it, I might have said that I lacked ethnicity.  White kids often feel that, as if they their racial identity is so 'normal' (are people of color 'abnormal'?) that it's not anything to take note of, like a shade of paint you see everywhere in institutional buildings.  But for me, it was more than that--the culture I came from, Philadelphia Quakerism, felt...wispy and insubstantial.  There seemed to be so little to it. My parents didn't speak with pride of my father's conversion to Quakerism from Midwestern Presbyterianism, of my grandparents' relief work during World War I with the British and American Friends.  (That was how my grandparents met--my existence is due to Quaker action in the world.)  On First Days (Sundays) we went to a plain meetinghouse where we sat in a quiet group until someone was moved to stand up and speak, but we didn't talk at home about why we worshiped that way, what it meant, or how other religions managed the God thing.  Other Quaker families talked about their faith, but we didn't.

In fact, I was like a fish so wedded to the placid water of a lake that it has no idea it's wet.  Quakerism subtly affected everything in our household.  For one thing, we valued silence.  The implication was that silence isn't empty, but full, a place in which God can speak. Hanging out together didn't have to be full of chatter. I was part of a self-effacing but prideful  culture. Decor was ever tasteful, never glittery. Fabrics were natural, not synthetic...and for me as a young kid, flowered underwear was out of the question. White ruled! White sheets, white walls, white underpants.  Humility and modesty were "better" than ambition, money seeking, any kind of hard pursuit.  Never mind that the same Grandfather who did relief work in France had left my mother a nice inheritance. "Doing" was never a priority for either of my parents.  It took me a long time to adjust to the fact that I'm an ambitious person, and that it's okay to put my name out there.

For a long time, if I went to an author's reading, it felt 'wrong' to me to ask the writer to autograph a book. Book signings! What hubris, my father might say, criticizing the author's 'need' for recognition.  Ah, but he also brought me to the rich well of silence from which words and stories emerge, like lovely creatures, blinking in the light of day.  Writing itself was all there, in the silence. It was waiting for me to discover it.

(Thanks to Beverly Tatum and her thoughtful book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? for insights about white racial identity. If I ever hear her read, I'll be sure to have her sign my copy of the book.)

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Something I never thought about

Helen, being bi-racial, raised by a white mom and born unto a black father, I never thought about how "whites" felt. My mother, bless her heart, was more "black" than white on many levels except the color of her pale skin. Her spirit was black, her views liberal. She fought for civil rights, marched, did sit ins and only spoke of the black cause. Because of that, I only focused on the black plight, injustices and things that we felt around non-blacks. Weird huh? I never gave a second thought to how whites must feel in our presence. Your words touch me. I am so grateful to have found this site, you and so many other talented writers. Its refreshing to see and hear other perspectives and feelings.

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Thanks, I'm honored!! The

Thanks, I'm honored!! The more I look into the whole topic of race, the more things seem to come to light, and the more I realize that dialog around race is crucial.

Your mother sounds pretty unusual...and very cool. Do you know of James McBride's memoir, The Color of Water? His mother was a Jewish woman who 'passed' for black. I was raised not to talk about race, as if it was something 'not quite nice.' The "let's pretend we're all the same color" thing doesn't really work, though. But it's a lot easier than examining one's own prejudices, etc. etc. An activist once told me that the condescension of white liberals was one reason for the formation of the Black Panthers. Having grown up among the enlightened, I can totally see it.

Anyway, welcome to Red Room! I'm going to check out your page.