Leaving “Whitopia” Behind


During a recent trade show, one of our buyers stopped by our booth to put an order together and told me how much she appreciated the cover model we had chosen for our catalog this year. The customers that walk through her door love the Pebble Pixie Rattles, whose variety of skin tones mirror their own. She told me that America isn’t a white country anymore, and she’s right. In fact, 2042 is said to be the year when whites will be a minority in this country. The landscape of us is changing.

Does that scare you or excite you?

As a descendant of immigrants who came here to escape terrible discrimination and death because of their faith, (read more from that post here) I dream of this land being a place where people of all backgrounds can find sanctuary and freedom.

My ancestors were of Western European descent (“white”). They boarded a ship and found sanctuary in this country during the time when Africans were forced to board the slave ships and live out a hellish existence in this country.

I struggle to wrap my mind around it. The disparity of the two experiences epitomizes white privilege.

I thought, in my naive, sheltered, rural “white girl” reality, that when slavery was abolished in 1865, it and all of the injustices associated with it truly ended. I understand now, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

One of my earliest waking moments was when I participated in a Privilege Walk done by Mennonite Central Committee. As a stay-at-home mom with no college degree, I was not surprised to be near the back of the room when the exercise ended. What shocked me was that behind me was a black mom, who worked full time and had a college degree. I was crying by the end of it, shaken out of my comfortable white bubble, while she matter-of-factly said, “This is how it has always been.”

Nearly a decade later, I’m still listening, learning and re-educating myself on the painful realities that make up the history of this land and contribute more than we can imagine to current realities.

Books like The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson are teaching me about the migration of nearly 6 million people from 1915 to 1970, fleeing slave-like conditions and unspeakable brutality in the south, who made their way north and west to begin new lives. Yet, even in these new places, they struggled dearly, often forced to do the most menial work for a fraction of what their white counterparts made, forced to live in segregated and over-crowded sections of the cities where they had to pay double for half the space. As a result, both parents had to work, leaving the children to fend for themselves.

Today people of color are often blamed for the drug and crime problems of these cities. But what if their ancestors had been treated with equality from the start? What if they had had fair and equal pay? What if they could have lived anywhere and done anything within their skill power? What if they could have afforded one parent to stay home and care for the kids? What if equal access to education had been made available?
I listened to a Ted Talk today on Whitopia, by Rich Benjamin on his journey as a black man through the whitest towns in America. A couple of quotes stood out to me.

It’s possible for people to be in Whitopia, not for racist reasons, though it has racist outcomes.

America is as residentially and educationally segregated today as it was in 1970.

This hits me hard.

I look at the beautiful face of Kahiniwalla’s 2017 Catalog cover model, and I get all soft inside. I see what will become a strong woman of color who is not left in the back of the room, but is leading the way to a new era. We can choose to embrace 2042 today.

If we treat minorities the way we wish to be treated, we will have nothing to fear when we become the minority.

To Be or Not To Be (Color Blind)

Black and White Ballerina Dolls by Pebble

I used to imagine that I was color blind. Not literally, of course. I know a few people who are color blind and it is difficult for me to imagine seeing the world in only a handful of colors. I’m speaking figuratively of the idea that I could or should be “color blind” to racial differences. I thought this was a good thing. Don’t get me wrong, racial color blindness is meant to be a good thing but the more I thought about it, the more derogatory the term sounded to me. Rather than sharing my thoughts on the matter, I decided to listen to some of my black friends, to see how it felt for them when a white person says that they are color blind.

Here is what I heard from them.

“It feels dismissive. You’re blind to my color.”

“Doesn’t make sense – how can you say you don’t see something that is so much a part of who I am. Are you ashamed of my color?”

“Being blind means you don’t SEE me”

“It would be like being gender-blind. I don’t see gender. I treat everyone the same.To some people they would be just fine with that BUT the majority of people would say NO, see ME as a woman. See my unique beauty and strength. See how different I am from men but yet how I can do just as many things and succeed because I am a woman.

“A world devoid of color is what color? White. I am not white, and I am. My color is not invisible.”

It’s like saying ‘I see you, just not that part of you, you know that part that makes us different, that makes me uncomfortable maybe?'”

“White people talk about THEIR color all the time and obsess over it. Who’s pale, whole tan, how long they have to lay out to get darker. Who can’t lay out because they’re just getting red…and yet somehow can tell me, they’re colorblind”.

While we mean to say we don’t judge people based on their skin color, what they hear is that they don’t exist. That we are ashamed of them. That we are afraid of their color. That they are invisible.

When I look at the breadth of color in the world around me, I can’t help but believe that we are meant to notice color and take it in with every breath. Color is not meant to be ignored.

As one of my friends eloquently said, “May we be color-brave, not color-blind”.

Brave enough to see color and not judge.

Brave enough to celebrate differences and not label people.

Brave enough to say, “I see you and you matter to me.”

* For a scholarly discussion on the pros and cons of “color blindness” as it relates to race check out this article in the Atlantic.


A Nation of Immigrants



Her beautiful brown-skinned arm reached out from the surging crowd to grab mine. Startled, my eyes looked up into her deep brown ones as she began to stroke my arm. “Clean” she said, referring to my color of skin. Then she held up her arm and declared it dirty and began to rub it as if there was actually dirt that could be wiped away. I nearly choked in indignation and astonishment, trying my best in broken Bangla to convince her otherwise. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders, shake her and say, “I am the same as you! It’s just color pigments and you happen to have more than me and you are so gorgeous!” But in that moment there was nothing I could say or do to convince her otherwise.

Nearly two decades later, I’m still overwhelmed by the issue. Some days I want to grab the whole world by the shoulders and say, “We are the same. It’s just pigmentation!”

The gut-wrenching truth of the matter is that it is not just about pigmentation anymore. We have made it into something much, much more. I look at our beautiful world of color, the shades and depths of humanity around the world, and my heart wants to stop beating for all its beauty, and yet we have turned this beautiful medley into something ugly and hierarchical. Those of you who come from families of color or from other nations know exactly what I am talking about. I don’t need to explain it to you. You’ve felt it. You live with it. And for this I am so, so sorry.

These words are really for the rest of you who, like me, have lighter skin. We think we live in a nation of equality, with liberty and justice for all. Yet we have no idea how hard it is to be in this nation as a person of color or as an immigrant.

The Emancipation Proclamation failed to change the underlying heart attitude of our nation. Some of us still see ourselves as a white nation. Some of us still think that this is our land. That our way of doing things is the normal way. And anything “other” makes us afraid.

We are not a white nation. This is not our land. We stole this land from those who were here before us, brutally driving them into tiny little pieces of this wide beautiful land while we control the rest of it.

I remember one 4th of July, sitting with family in a park that was full of all shades of beautiful color, where white was the minority. Watching the fireworks dance under a clear Texas sky, I realized that this is who we are, a nation of immigrants. At what point do we have the moral right to say, “This is mine. No more of you can come here now.”

What nation has collapsed because it was generous? Show me a nation that has fallen apart because it has sheltered the poor and the broken.

Instead, we have chosen to narrow our gates and send our soldiers running to the “aid” of other countries to stop the terror in them, while we perpetuate a quiet terror in our own country every day.

We are not the savior. People of my color (or lack of color), for centuries have tried to dictate to the rest of the world how to live. Not only that, we currently use the rest of the world to slave away for us so that we can enjoy more stuff, for less money. But what is the true cost?

There is a growing awareness of modern day slavery, racial issues and much more, but unless we level the playing field of our hearts, not much will change. Like that arm of a different color reaching out for mine – all because decades before white people had come into her land and taken over, and those with light skin enjoyed privileges the rest did not – it’s time for us to reach out our arms to peoples of different colors. It’s time to ask them what it has been like. The time for pretending to be the world’s hero is over. We need to be quiet and listen to people’s stories. Whether they have been here for decades because our forefathers enslaved their forefathers, or they are newly arrived to escape horrors beyond our imagination, it is time for us to open our doors and our hearts. To be the ones who serve. To be the ones who listen. To be the ones who weep.