When you're the only white person in the room

Amanda Shaffer's entire world shifted when she became a white minority in a black high school.

Story highlights

  • What happens when whites live in in a black world?
  • White student at black school: Your vision shifts
  • Some still can't define what being black means
  • Why you should never say "I don't see color"

(CNN)Flip open Amanda Shaffer's high school yearbook, and you'll notice something that stands out even more than her classmates' earnest smiles and big hairdos.

Only a handful of white faces appear among the portraits of African-American students -- flecks of white on a canvas of black and brown. One of those faces belongs to Shaffer, who was bused to a black high school in Cleveland, Ohio, after refusing to follow her friends to a white, private academy.
For three years, Shaffer was the only white person in the room. She had to learn how to fit in, how to not say the wrong thing. She had to deal with the peculiar sensation of being the only white girl in the bleachers as jittery white basketball teams entered a raucous gym filled with black people.
    "It shifted my point of view," Shaffer says. "It's like when you go to the optometrist, and they slap those new lenses on you -- you see the world differently."
    At least some do. A co-owner of the NBA's Atlanta Hawks recently offered another perspective on race when he complained in an email that the presence of too many black fans at Hawks' games scared away Southern whites who are "not comfortable being in an arena or a bar where they are the minority."
    Bruce Levenson, the owner, resigned. But the focus on his remarks ignored the perspective of people who actually have a lot of practice at being the only white person in a black crowd. They are whites who, by choice or necessity, lived in an all-black world. They became the white minority.
    There's a long tradition in America of people offering unsolicited advice to racial minorities on how to blend in. But there's no instruction book for those who struggle with an experience that one white NBA player described as "the loneliness of being white in an all-black world."
    It's not all racial angst, though, says one civil rights activist who left his all-white upbringing in Vermont to live for two years among black residents in Mississippi, where he discovered R&B singer Otis Redding, okra and black preaching.
    "I lived in a completely black world; every couple of weeks, I looked in the mirror to remind myself that I was white," says Chris Williams, who was then an 18-year-old volunteer for a civil rights campaign known as Mississippi Freedom Summer.
    Chris Williams, then 18, found a new home among blacks in Mississippi where he became an activist.
    What did he learn? Williams and others with similar experiences gave this minority report.
    You learn to imagine
    He was a raised in a small town in Missouri and went on to become a Rhodes Scholar, a U.S. senator and a presidential candidate. But some of the most important lessons Bill Bradley learned came on the basketball court as a player for the New York Knicks.
    Bradley joined a team dominated by black superstars such as Willis Reed, Earl "The Pearl" Monroe and Walt Frazier. Off the court, though, the team's hierarchy was reversed.
    "When I was a rookie, I was getting a lot of offers for commercials and my black teammates, who were better, were not getting any," he says.
    Bradley got something else that he says was invaluable -- a glimpse into the private lives of black people. He shared rooms, meals, bus rides and long conversations off the court with his black teammates. He saw the constant racism they experienced and how it fed their anger.
    He knew what it felt like to be outsider because he had become one.
    In a speech he once gave to the National Press Club, Bradley said:
    "I better understand distrust and suspicion. I understand the meaning of certain looks and certain codes. I understand what it is to be in racial situations for which you have no frame of reference. I understand the tension of always being on guard, of never totally relaxing ...
    "I understand the loneliness of being white in a black world."
    Bradley eventually made the NBA Hall of Fame. He's become one of the country's most insightful voices on race.
    "Race relations are essentially exercises in imagination," he says today. "You have to imagine yourself in the skin of the other party. So that means if you're white, you have to understand certain realities."
    Other white sojourners in a black world say you have to learn to take advice or even orders from a person of color.
    One man had to do both to s