I’m nervous even as I write this first line. How does a white person write about her interactions with black people in a way that doesn’t offend anyone? There are so many ways that I can be offensive without meaning to be. And it’s not just being politically incorrect that scares me. What’s defined as correct changes over time. I’m talking about something more personal. In many cases, I’m writing about people I know, love, and respect, and I don’t want to do or say anything that could be hurtful in any way, shape or form.
My mother was a master at this. From her first day of teaching, she was able to challenge her students–all of whom were black–to think and talk about how being black affected them, and somehow she accomplished this without stepping on toes. Years later, when I interviewed her students, the most common response about why they loved her as a teacher and what she did that made her so good was that she cared. From the first moment, she saw her students as her children. They didn’t scare her.
Of course she was scared about how she would do. She was worried that she had essentially no experience teaching and that she felt like an outsider. She was worried, as I am, that she would say the wrong thing and inadvertently insult someone. But she never thought twice about whether she could accept her students, only whether they could accept her. This vulnerability came across in everything that she did, and over and over she was forgiven for what might have seemed inappropriate behavior.