“Don’t Trust White People”: How My Father’s Prejudice Affects Me Today

“Don’t trust white people,” my father said as he furiously drove down the freeway while listening to Family Radio. This is not the first time he has uttered these words or this sentiment. “They don’t have your best interest at heart,” he continued. I nod but I cannot understand what he means. I was attending a catholic high school at the time and had no particular attachment to any group. As a total lone wolf, I didn’t really give people the opportunity to talk to me or present me with microaggressions. Even so, I felt the heat of being in a predominantly white institution.

On my first day of high school, I introduced myself to a young woman, who was white, and told her my name was Sarah. She said her name was Sarah as well, then raised her right fist, and said, “Hello my African-American sister.”

Yeah.

There were several reasons I wished I was born white in my teen years. It seemed like the white folks in my life had more money and possessions. It seemed like they weren’t as worried and scared as I was. They seemed to be naturally confident and obnoxious about their opinions. They also seemed to know about things I hadn’t heard of like academic awards, or sources of income that I had never heard of. They spoke with a casual ease about things that puzzled me.

Then, when I was in my early 20s, my father told me his story. It was only then I began to understand why he was the king of race prejudice.


My father described being a young man in an America that had just begun to understand that blacks were people and started to give them jobs in fields like accounting. My father was told again and again by his college advisor that he couldn’t be a doctor, which was something that he had aspired to since he came from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. At first, my father took his advisor’s advice and began a degree in finance, but he was unhappy because it wasn’t his dream. He then enrolled in biology and chemistry classes. When his advisor questioned him, he said they were just electives. If it was up to his advisor my father would not be a physician today, never mind a neurologist.

My father also regaled me with a tale about his medical school experience. As HIV was first being recognized the medical community theorized that HIV came from heroin addicts, homosexuals, and Haitians. This led to students physically moving their desks away from my father. His distrust of white people is understandable especially in the light of the recent surge of black women killed by police this year, among other disturbing news items.

To this day I still wonder, “Are all white people really against me?”

I started to tease out whether this concept was a fact or opinion during college. My times at NYU made me a black militant. I remember my brother crying because he overheard a professor say that “these HEOP/CSTEP kids actually think they’re going to be doctors” and laugh. HEOP/CSTEP were opportunity programs that were filled with mostly black students receiving financial or academic help. This statement — and the staggering mountain of implications that lived beneath it — led me and my brother to realize that we were at a disadvantage. I remember the College Republican club hosting a game called “Find The Illegal Immigrant.”

These incidents made me…angry. To say the least.

I started to read black nationalist literature. I fed on the antagonistic NYU environment. I called myself Fahima Uhuru. I made professors call me Fahima in spite of my legal name being Sarah. I had white friends but I only really vibed with black people. I only studied and shared my dreams and goals with black people. I was convinced that white people were against me.


When I transferred to the University of Denver, I continued to feel alone. However, I immediately became acquainted with Thomas, who was the white head of LGBT affairs in the Multicultural Center. He was just so honest and kind that he won me over. He held space for me to express any and all feelings. He advised me on life issues and academic pursuits. I began to feel like maybe what my father had said wasn’t true.

When I moved back to New York, I had even more positive experiences with white people. My MFA advisor, Marilyn, was the best ally I’ve ever encountered. Her office was a safe space. She also allowed me to feel my feelings and express pain. She led me to the poetry of Ai and the literature of Zora Neale Hurston. When I read the phrase, “The black woman is the mule of the world,” I felt so much identification. Marilyn was a woman who was self-aware and an advocate for people who didn’t look like her. I was wrapped up in safety.

But then…Eric Garner happened.

When Eric Garner was killed, I began to reconsider my feelings about white people. My Facebook timeline began to light up with alternating hashtags of #AllLivesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter. I began to systematically unfriend the #AllLivesMatter crowd because they didn’t seem to understand. I began to withdraw not only into myself but especially away from my white friends.

At the same time, I began to push back against my own ideas of prejudice. I met people who were poor and white. I met people who were sick and white. I met white people that didn’t have access to college. Everything I had believed about white people was wrong. When you make generalizations about a group based on a few experiences, you are often wrong.

Today, I am hyper-aware of the color of my skin. I am aware of how I am being perceived. I am aware of the politics of my afro and my left fist. I am aware of the overly vigilant response that police have to my skin tone. I am aware that my skin breeds fantasies and exoticism for some men.

Nevertheless, I have learned that not every white person is out to get me. The systemic oppression that I feel is systemic, not always rooted or expressed in personal bias. Actually, it would be so much easier if it were just personal bias. We have a lot of work to do to dismantle racism. Because of that, I still feel perfectly justified being skeptical or suspicious of white people. It is a matter of self-preservation.