White Surprise and More

Recently my husband and I found ourselves as the only Black couple on a sea and land tour to Alaska and northern Canada. As retirees of the US government and academia respectively, we were quite accustomed to being “the only ones,” meaning being the only people of color in meetings, talks, and conferences. Yet what emerged as most unnerving and tiring were the responses we received from our nearly all White tour group. Many attempted to mask their surprise that we are two obviously middle-or-upper -middle-class people with LLBean and Orvis outerwear to signal that. It didn’t help that my husband Warren, carried along a very expensive camera and took photos at nearly every stop. 

Within hours our White travel companions clamored to inquire about our occupations and could not hide the shock on their faces when they discovered that Warren, a retired marine biologist, and I, a former psychology professor, loved adventure travel. I sensed a certain unease set in as they became aware that Warren and I might actually possess a higher socioeconomic status than some of them. The country had witnessed many years of President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama, a very high profile, upper-middle class Black couple with impressive academic pedigrees, but to our White travel companions they must be an anomaly, right? I didn’t focus long on the personal and social discomfort of my travel companions because I had witnessed it countless times. Yet such social encounters represent rarely publicly discussed assumptions. Americans don’t just perceive racial categories but assign value to them. Euro Americans (White people) are valued more highly and assumed to be inherently better (superior) to African Americans (Black people) and most people of color regardless of socioeconomic or educational status. These suppositions undergird most interracial interactions and we unwittingly teach these assumptions to all children who in turn internalize them. 

From “Living Into God’s Dream: Dismantling Racism in America” by Catherine Meeks – Morehouse Publishing