Greetings. Thank you for our recent conversation. I understand that it was very important for you to share your story with me so that I would know that you are “a good white person.” You are the first person I know to openly introduce yourself as such. I wasn’t able to share my story at the time so I wanted to write you a letter and in the process share a bit of my story with you.
I don’t know if you remember me, but I have met you and various members of your family many times over the years. The very first time was my senior year in high school, and everyone was getting ready for graduation. I was caught up in mundane preparations and then the yearbook came out. My classmates and I spent a considerable amount of time in the hallways signing one another’s yearbooks and looking for photos of ourselves. I didn’t find my own photo until later in the day. Thankfully I was alone because under this photo was a caption that read: “Most likely to work at Burger King and have five children.” This is where you and your family enter the picture.
Mr. Good White Person was my advisor and economics teacher. I was a student in an International Baccalaureate program, and we all took economics. I went to Mr. Good White Person’s classroom to discuss the situation with the yearbook. We sat down. I showed him my photo in the yearbook and asked what I should do.
He didn’t understand. “What you should do about what?” he asked. I explained again. His response? “These are good kids. They didn’t mean any harm. They were just having a bit of fun.”
I next met female members of your family when I began associating with members of the Religious Society of Friends.
It was a great shock for your relatives when I walked into the meetinghouse and sat down to center for worship. The kitchen is just off to the side of the worship space so I could clearly overhear the whisper asking the question, “Does she know that there aren’t any black Quakers?” I believe this comment was made out of concern for my perceived comfort level among the Religious Society of Friends. However, I would like to point out that although American Friends are overwhelmingly white, the majority of Friends worldwide are people of color.
I continued going back to the meetinghouse, so your relatives slowly got used to seeing me and no longer felt the need to whisper questions about me to each other. Asking me directly was now the norm. Sadly, it became such a norm that my presence in meeting for worship seemed to prompt “Ask a Black Quaker” time. Over the years I’ve been asked numerous questions, many of which I ignored or answered as succinctly (or tersely depending on your viewpoint) as possible. I am going to answer the frequently asked questions at this time. Perhaps you can share my responses at the next Good White Person Reunion or at Gathering. I am assuming that the majority of your relatives will be at one event or the other, probably both.
Question: “Do you miss the music?” (I think what you are really asking me is do I miss the gospel choir and traditional hymns associated with the “Black Church”?)
Verbal response: No.
Mental commentary: Did someone seriously just ask me if I miss not hearing music for one hour out of the week? For the record, I listen to inspirational music during my commute to the meetinghouse to center down. I also arrive for worship about an hour early and sing my praises in the meetinghouse. More to the point, why are you asking me, an African American classically trained cellist, if I miss “the music”? Do you ask white Friends, many of whom are much more musically inclined than I am, this question? Have you asked a white Friend this question?
Question: Can I touch your hair?
Initial response: I always pretend I don’t hear that question, but since you can’t seem to get the hint or just have difficulty with subtlety, you just repeat the question.
Aside: For the record, my answer to that question will always be no. What is your problem? Unless you are a child, there is no reason for you to even think that I will say yes to this question, especially if you don’t even know my name.
You have told me in the past that you are certain that Imogene [or insert the name of the person of color who is not me but also attends your meeting here] doesn’t feel the same way about these situations as I do. Let me tell you one more thing before I close: I am certain my name is not Imogene. We are not the same person. She has had her experiences, and I have had mine. Black people are not a monolith. Friends of color are not a monolith.
Finally, thank you so much for your concern for my well-being over the years, and yes, it might be easier for me if I just found a “good black church,” but God has not told me to leave the Religious Society of Friends, so I will be seeing you around the meetinghouse, at yearly meeting, and at Gathering.
Love and Light,
P.S. I realize you do not know my name so this letter may confuse you. I am the person of color you approach for conversation at random times, in random places, and to whom you offer unsolicited and seemingly random advice.
Editor’s note (10/17/14):
Regina Renee is not the only one using the open-letter strategy to address racism. The much-anticipated film Dear White People—described as “a biting satire of racial politics” by New York Magazine—opens in theaters on Friday, October 17. Watch the trailer below: