Last month, I wrote a post that responded to the often asked question of why I am so attracted to black culture and matters of race relations.
I had a few post comments and comments on social media where readers briefly shared their attractions to other races and cultures, including a response from a friend of a Facebook friend, Elissa Butson, who, as a white woman, said that she couldn’t relate to my essay, and that her response to the question would be very different than mine.
After I quickly got over the paranoia that my post had perhaps offended her, and it had reeked of white privilege, I excitedly engaged in a series of FB messages with Elissa.Turns out that her differences were related to her upbringing that didn’t exactly include a home or community life full of references to black culture, or black people, for that matter. Yet, Elissa seemed burning with passion to reflect on her own strong attraction to black culture, to explore the how and the why, just like I continue to do on this journey via Wendy Jane’s Soul Shake.
I love her honesty, the details she uses to capture her family, the time she grew up in, and the white girl coming-of-age explores her love of black culture memories, she vividly shares here. Here it is:
by Elissa Butson
When I think back and try to figure out where my love and interest for black culture came from, I still can’t pinpoint it. I can remember being in Evan’s market with my mom and my baby doll and hearing a little girl say, “mom why does she have a black doll?” I was so upset by the comment. Why would she say that? I remember feeling embarrassed, like I was the one who had done something wrong. At the same time, I felt confused. I couldn’t understand why it was a big deal.
Another early memory I have is of watching a movie in elementary school and a small African American boy kept saying,” black is beautiful” and I thought, it is! He was so cute. I loved his skin tone and how smooth it looked. I remember wishing I was black because it was so beautiful to me. I would cut out the Benetton ads from all the different women of color from around the world and tape them to my walls wishing I looked like them. In the nineties, I wanted to be Lauryn Hill in the NAS video “If I Ruled the World”, with her funky afro and cocoa skin. I always wanted an afro and bellbottoms with platform shoes. I just loved the seventies look. But I didn’t want to look like Bo Derek or Suzanne Somers. No, I wanted to be Diana Ross or Donna Summers. They had that funk. They had that soul. The white women were too plain, too boring, too skinny and just no shape or curves. To me black was and is beautiful. I don’t really know where these feelings came from. I still haven’t quite figured it out.
When I was about 9 or 10, a friend of mine would have these twin girls come stay with her every summer from New York for 2 weeks. The program was called the Fresh Air Fund where inner city kids would stay with a family in the country. These twin sisters came to stay and I was so intrigued by them that I begged my mom for years to join this program. Finally, one summer, she gave in and I was going to have a fresh air fund girl come stay with me! I was so excited! I got to have a girl come stay with me! That is, until she arrived. When Maria stepped off the bus, disappointment flooded over me. Maria was a light skinned, freckled, chubby, redheaded, Spanish girl. I was crushed. I remember telling my mother “but mom, I wanted a black girl!” What a spoiled, white privileged thing to say. Like I was picking out new shoes or something. At that moment that was how I felt. My dreams had been shattered the moment I met her. She irritated me. I know it was mean and rude and insensitive of me, but in my mind, this was not what I had imagined. Maria came back several summers after that but Maria deserves her own story.
So back to the question, where did these feelings come from? Why have I always loved black people and black culture? I grew up in a white family and predominantly white neighborhood. In fact, I grew up around quite a few racist family members and still never quite understood racism. I will give my mother some credit for my love of diversity. She always befriended different people of different cultures. There was Son and Kim who were Vietnamese and then Rosalie and Peruko who are Peruvian, and Dr. Kim and his wife who were Korean. Living close to URI (University of Rhode Island) always brought in people from far and wide. My mom always made a point to make friends with the foreigners, inviting them to dinner and church. I guess I was pretty oblivious to racism, until that one August visit to St George, Georgia to see my maternal grandparents, Buck and Veechy. My mom’s Ant Mertyl and uncle Bill picked us up from the airport. I remember riding in the back of the car, stench from the paper mills stunk up the air, and I sat quietly holding my nose while they chatted. I really didn’t even know the terms they were using, I wasn’t used to the racial slurs they uttered. Later that night, alone in the room with my mom, I asked what they were talking about. As she explained the words of hate and ignorance I couldn’t help but to burst into tears! My heart tearing at the thought that someone could even speak such disgust. Through my tears I cried “I just keep thinking how would Joyll feel if she heard that?” Joyll was one of my best friends and she was African American. My heart broke a little for Joyll that night. I just didn’t understand it. Even more confusing, I remember thinking, how do I love these creatures, my own blood, when they think and speak like this?
I think my love of black culture and black men became more apparent the older I got. History was boring, unless it was black history. White boys were okay but I loved men of color. It wasn’t even just black. It was Indian, Native American, Spanish, Cape Verdean, anyone different. I love the different looks and the bad boys, of course. 8th grade, Everett, he was skinny, tall, curly hair, class clown, missing a tooth, and I was in love. He lived in the boys home down the street.That was just the beginning. Sure, I dated white boys but never for long. I just loved, and still do love, black men. Maybe it’s the swagger or maybe it’s the feel of their skin but I have always had a strong attraction to black men. I’ve been asked questions like,”when did you know?” or “what is it?” and “why?” I usually answer something like “I don’t know. I guess it’s like being gay, maybe I was born this way. I just do.” Why do some men like curvy girls and some men like thin? It is what it is. I once dated a white guy who would bring me inside out Junior Mints because he said they were like me, the chocolate was on the inside. He would repeatedly tell me,”you know you’re not black, right?” I’ve dated black men who called me their nubian queen or make comments like, “Are you sure you’re not black?” I always laughed off the comments until recently when I really started thinking about them.
I was so conflicted over the years that I actually would label my life. Oh, that’s my black side, or I like Chris Farley, but that’s my white side. It wasn’t until this past year that I really started to internalize these words. Finally realizing I don’t have to label my likes and dislikes as black or white, they are just me. I have actually been pretty racist over the years but for me it has been against white people. I have had cousins who question, “aren’t you proud of your roots?” I would think, no, not really, because my love of black culture would only let me see the negative side of white people. The slave owners, the white supremacists, the uppity, rich people who oppressed blacks and these were the ones I wanted nothing to do with. I didn’t want to relate to that. I wanted to be black. I wanted to be accepted among black people and black culture. I wanted to be anything but white. So if I had to be white, I want to be the cool white lady. The one who knows all the lyrics to the Wu Tang songs, that only watches BET, who can cook collard greens and cornbread. I wanted to hang in the projects. I wanted a man with grills and a dirty south accent. The white girl with the ghetto booty who has rhythm and can dance. I am all those things. But I’m also the girl who loves the Bee Gee’s and Norah Jones. Who grew up blue eyed and blonde. The math nerd who loves to play Scrabble and mad libs. I love yoga and knitting.
The one thing I’ve always loved about people is differences. You’re covered in tattoos? Cool. I don’t have any, but I love people that are brave enough to have them. I love people from other countries, cultures and backgrounds. People who are different and unique, regardless of what color they are. So maybe I am what I have always loved. Maybe I’m just different. Unique. Maybe I don’t want to be labeled black or white. Maybe I’m some area of grey, or a splash of red and a drop of royal blue. Maybe I’m just me, and that’s all I can be.
I thank Elissa for sharing her essay with us, and again, invite other readers to submit your own writings on the how and the why of your attraction to other races and cultures.