Robin White

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At age 11 Robin White lost her mother. She lived from place to place and state to state under the rule of many matriarchs. Known in the family as the “suitcase kid,” White grew up knowing that “there was so much love around me, particularly with the women.” She spent her childhood moving between foster homes, a girls’ school, and various family member homes in Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. White recalls that formal education wasn’t a priority but “they educated me in other ways. Learning about family is absolute—my job is to serve the community because everywhere I go, I belong.”

Her Mississippi family taught her about native plants and tried to instill in her the place Black people were expected to occupy in the South in the 1970s. In a 2020 oral history interview, White notes that they were “trying to teach me how to survive, how to survive with white people. I had to learn how to navigate in the white man’s world. I had to behave and carry myself humbly and not draw any attention at all to myself or others.”

White had trouble following a different set of rules; she was inquisitive as she tried to understand the silence.

I still had to look down and not look white people in the eye, nor back talk. “Yes, ma’am, No, ma’am” was an automatic response. You just didn’t question adults and I was always questioning. My family had an unspoken fear for me—sometimes you could see concern in their eyes. I could feel it when their gentle hands cupped my face and looked deeply into me. They said that I was a wild child, that I was going to bring death to myself. I didn’t know how to back down.

White felt the injustice of racial inequality.

Why do I have to keep my head down or step off the sidewalk for white people to pass? We had to look down or try to be invisible. What do you mean we’re not worthy [or are] unintelligent? I am not a bad person, a criminal, or just a nobody. The tough lessons were for me to love myself, [not] wait for the approval of others. Why was I not good enough? Why was I devalued? Why do I have to move over for the good people? If they’re good people, then what does that make us? I constantly questioned at age twelve, thirteen, fourteen, trying to wrap my head around the two worlds.

White would later transform her “invisibility” and perfect this attribute through her work with the National Park Service (NPS) working behind the scenes in service to her community. White feels that “everywhere she goes she is part of that universal community.”

At the same time, she could still display a child’s innocence, believing that the Colored water fountains were “a trick because no colored water came out of the water spout.”

White learned to navigate in a third sphere as part of the Gullah Geechee community when she moved to live with family in South Carolina.

It was not popular to be of the Gullah Geechee culture. I learned at an early age to become invisible when white people used to say to me, “Come here, you little ole nappy-headed Geechee girl.” I’d hide my pain and swallow the hurt. When others called me a Geechee girl, it was filled with love and pride. But the way white people said it, it was like being called the N-word. Their harsh tone alone would let you know that it was nothing nice. I didn’t have to look up to see the hate in their eyes; I heard it in their voices.

Despite those terrible experiences, White is thankful for her Gullah Geechee heritage, remarking that “those wise women immersed me in tangible and intangible lessons that remain a part of me to this very day. I am grateful for their heart and hands as they nurtured and cultivated me.”

White grew up loving nature and the outdoors: “I’m the one that would run and pick up a snake. I’m the one that would come back with the frogs, with the animals, and run in and out of the house. I’ve always been the child that was a part of nature.” Lessons in her cultural heritage and experiences such as catching crabs and shrimp, picking pecans and cotton, and learning about waterways were her education of choice and necessity. White dropped out of school after the ninth grade.

Later in life, White returned to formal education. At 19 she earned her GED. She went on to earn a BS in criminal justice from Indiana University Northwest. Later, she completed a master’s degree in leadership, social issues, and public policy at Union Institute University. As of 2022 she was pursuing a doctorate in theology and divinity.

White was 22 years old and living in Michigan City, Indiana, when she enrolled in a workforce development program through the Young Adult Conservation Corps. Part of the training included role-playing job interview techniques. She was partnered with Sam Vaughn, the environmental education coordinator at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. He asked her how she would feel about working with white people. She responded, “Content. Why? What’s wrong with that? You’re no better than I am.” She recalls, “He burst out laughing and said, ‘We’re going to hire you.’ I didn’t believe him.” She received a phone call a few weeks later telling her to report to the maintenance division at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Her career in maintenance was short-lived. She was supposed to work in road and trail maintenance, but as she put it, “They had a problem with me because I kept running off looking at plants.” She was soon transferred to the park’s environmental education program as a park aide. She had no professional training or background in the field but had lots of life experience living and working in different environments.

She recalls, “At first it was me, Bernadette Williams, and Marta Kelly, three girls of color and different shades. Then Darlene Mandel-Carnes joined us. She was a happy white girl from Michigan, always laughing, full of light and love. She was very supportive of us.” Not everyone was as open minded. White remembers that “the police used to follow us from Beverly Shores. Larry Waldron, the chief of interpretation, told them he will call the FBI in if they didn’t leave us alone. They saw us so much that eventually they got used to us.”


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