Opinion: My mom was my white ally long before it was popular

Janice Hayes Kyser

Like so many black people, I have been overcome by waves of emotion over the past several months. I have watched the corona virus decimate my community and now the long simmering virus of racism is making me sick. The country is convulsing and so is my heart.

As a bi-racial woman, I have always felt like I was this unsettling mix — part oppressor and part oppressed. I have often struggled knowing that the races that make me who I am have a bitter history tainted with subjugation and suffering. As the daughter of a black Alabaman and a White Brit, I have had a front row seat to the bountiful benefits of white privilege and the trials and tribulations of being black in America.

As a little girl I saw how the security guards followed my father around the Sears & Roebuck store in my home town of Tacoma, Washington, while the sales clerks clamored to help my mother.

Winifred Hayes and her daughters; Janice sitting to her left and Jennifer, in her arms.

I heard the pain in my father’s voice as he talked about how his teachers in Mobile, Alabama told him he wasn’t college material. “Boy, you should go to work in the shipyards,” they told him. Instead, he enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed in England where he met my mother.

He told me he dreaded returning to the States because of the toxic racial climate in the 1960s. He told his parents he would never return to the South because of the hurt and degradation he endured there. He is 86 years old and has not set foot in the state of Alabama since he was 18.

But racism is rampant. It isn’t isolated to a ZIP code or geographic region. Sadly, it has followed him throughout his life.

My father’s struggles taught me grit. My mother’s compassion taught me grace. We didn’t sweep race under the carpet in my house. My mother couldn’t get into my Dad’s skin, but she acknowledged his pain.

She saw how racism exposed the fragility of her people and the soul of ours. She took on the issue of race, even though she could never truly understand the pain. She was comfortable having the uncomfortable conversations. She listened more than she spoke. She didn’t make it about her. She was a “white ally” before the expression was popularized.

When I was about 10 years old I remember an incident at my Mother’s hair salon. “I have never seen a white person with hair so course,” the stylist said as I sat in her chair. Her words made the curly hairs at the back of my neck stand on edge. Before my mother could respond, I said defiantly: “That’s because I am black, lady.”

My mother snatched my hand and took me home. She wasn’t mad at me. She was disgusted with the hairdresser’s comment. She told me she was proud of me for being proud of who I was. She also told me she would never know what it was like to be black in America, but she would never stop trying.

I am so sad that my Mom, who passed away two years ago, isn’t here to discuss this period of unrest. She would be in the fight. She understood her white privilege was one of the benefits she was born with. She used her advantage for the good. She refused to let other white people marginalize my sister and I. She got it. She was our white mother and we were her black daughters. She knew we would have lives very different from hers; still she always made us feel like our black lives mattered.

Janice Hayes Kyser is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer and former journalist with The Detroit News and the Seattle Times.