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Voices / STREET LEVEL

I Won't Be Labeled White

February 14, 1993|NANCY LEE DAVIS | Nancy Lee Davis, 49, is a first-grade teacher at Commonwealth Avenue Elementary School in Mid-Wilshire. She is the mother of four grown daughters and a member of the All Peoples Christian Church.

I have been aware of the racism in our society for a long time. There is a hierarchy of the value of a person according to his skin shade. I have always attempted to be aware and not to participate in it, but it is so pervasive that it has taken me almost 50 years to figure out how to deal with it on a personal basis.

When I was student-teaching in 1969 at Grape Street School in Watts, there was one other student teacher who was also assigned there, and she believed that the lighter skinned a child was, the smarter he or she was.

No one could persuade her differently. It was ingrained in her. White people were just better than black people--that was all there was to it.

Just the other day, I was outside in my yard with my grandchildren and two African-American neighbor children came by. I asked the girl if the boy with her was her brother. Her reply was: "Oh, no. My brother is better than he is. He's light-skinned."

Labels are powerful, particularly the labels that we are given and learn as children.

The hierarchy of value according to color is not acknowledged verbally by most of society as a part of the reality that we live with, but that does not make it any less powerful. As a matter of fact, it is more powerful because it is not acknowledged as the truth.

Because I am aware of the power of labels in my own life, I always teach the children in my class that they are all equally important, and I treat them equally, acknowledging their differences as valuable.

Recently I have become very uncomfortable calling myself white. Whenever I had to fill out forms, I would mark that box. In doing so, I participated in the racism of this society--defining myself according to racist definitions.

From now on if I need to fill out forms and identify myself racially, I will mark other and call myself a European American. That is who I am.

My ancestors came from England, Scotland and Ireland. That is the culture in which I was brought up, but that culture is no more valuable or important than any other.

White or Caucasian is a construct of the racism that wants to put people in boxes and create their value based on the color of their skin. I will no longer participate in it by calling myself white.

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