I was standing in the aerobics room for a little while before I looked around the class of about thirty folks and realized, hmm, I’m the only white girl in this room. Everyone else was black.
I am rarely in all-white, or even predominately white, environments. But I am also rarely the only white person in a room. So I noticed.
The music started pumping, and I was obediently clomping up and down on my plastic step. While I love a good aerobics class, I’m not regular enough to really “get good” at it.
In other words, as the instructor calls out commands like we’re square dancing in a discotech, I don’t really keep up. I stop. I watch what everyone else is doing and jump back in. My poor transitioning skills work in my favor because I’m woefully out of shape. Studying everyone’s feet gives me time to breath.
Suddenly I started thinking to myself, “Sarah, get it together. You are making ALL WHITE PEOPLE LOOK BAD.” Because, you know, there’s some stereotypes about white people and dancing (as exemplified in this little gem).
I found myself wishing I could explain myself to my classmates. In my mind, I have various signs hanging around my neck:
“I didn’t used to be this clumsy and out of shape. In fact, I was a varsity basketball player in a past life. But in this life, I had a baby mere months ago!”
“Please forgive my hips. It’s not because I’m white. It’s because somewhere in my religious background I internalized this idea that swaying my hips to music is a slippery, slippery slope!”
“I will get this, folks. I was once enrolled in an ADULT CHRISTIAN HIP HOP DANCE CLASS. I got this!”
But wearing a sandwich board in aerobics seems impractical at best, so I tucked away my mental rationalizations.
After a water break, a girl about my age turned me and said, “You’re doing great… especially for your first time.”
I wanted to say, “Thanks. It’s actually not my first time, just in this class.” But when I opened my mouth, I literally couldn’t form words. Just a breathless giggle.
Still, I was surprised how much I appreciated her speaking to me. Normally, I’m not a big fan of strangers greeting me. (I’m sorry. Could I sound any more socially awkward and not like the extrovert that I actually am?)
But I did feel “on the outside” in that class. Partly because I was new, but also because of my skin color. I was really grateful for someone to simply say hello to me.
Reflecting on the class, I've wondered about friends of color experiencing all-white (or predominately white) environments. Is there a nervousness about reinforcing stereotypes? A desire to issue statements of explanation or rationalization like I had?
I can’t imagine how exhausting that must feel. I was wiped out after aerobics. Sure, for obvious reasons, but also because I’d been thinking so much.
I have hesitated to write this post. First of all, I know other people were probably thinking about me very little. And secondly, I have wondered if I would’ve even thought about the situation as much if I wasn’t thinking about blogging.
But also, I hesitate because I don’t want to compare how foolish I may look scrambling to execute an “L-step” to issues of true isolation, misunderstanding and damaging stereotypes. I don’t want to seem like I’m making light of real issues of race.
On the other hand, I am writing about it because in the multicultural life I’ve chosen, I’m thinking and talking about race often. There are many situations in which Billy is “the only” Latino, and we talk about it. We live in an African American neighborhood, and race is a topic of conversation there, too.
I also have thought a lot about the young woman who said hello to me. While I generally notice the racial make up of a room, I don’t always think to reach out if there’s only one person of color in a group of white folks. I want to be more aware to say hello. Hopefully, I can welcome someone else the way I felt welcomed.
Do you notice race in new settings? What have been your experiences?
Photo credit: Kenny Holston