If we look beyond the barriers, there’s more that binds us than what separates us.

I was criticized today for responding to a Facebook post with the common expression, “You go, girl.” The commenter’s perspective was that, as a white woman, I don’t own the right to use that phrase, especially to a woman of color. I reject that premise.

Language is a great unifier. The expression, “You go, girl,” says more about a commonality, a sisterhood of women than any ‘white’ expression I could summon. It’s an expression that I use frequently, after having lived in America’s most integrated city for twenty-eight years, because, in three short words, it encapsulates admiration, support, and solidarity with the recipient. I am all for borrowing language when it best expresses a particular point and is not used in any derogatory way.

We have a long way to go on race issues.

During my time in Oakland, I worked a variety of jobs, janitor, waitress, cashier, law clerk, school teacher, adult literacy coordinator and lawyer. I’m an odd duck, and never socialized much with lawyers. For the most part I didn’t share their values, but more specifically, most lawyers were unable to relate to someone who spoke their language but didn’t embrace an upwardly mobile consumption based lifestyle. At best, I was the odd duck, at worst, a subversive.

In Oakland, lawyers were supposed to live in the hills. I lived in the flats. Lawyers hired landscapers and gardeners. I ‘farmed’ my little urban yard. Lawyers golfed or played tennis, ‘at the Club.’ I volunteered for environmental causes and believed that golf courses were dangerous, chemically loaded, monocultures–both environmentally and socially. Basically, I didn’t blend well.

I worked in shared legal office space, and generally got on better with support staff than with the partner types. But even in Oakland, there were color lines. Looking back, my errors in racial harmony were often sins of omission, and missed opportunities. I am friendly to everyone, but I do not push. Sometimes, I should push.

In one shared office there was a young, brilliant, African-American paralegal, Alicia, who had taken a dislike to me. She was elegant and poised, in a way that I could never be. I admired her; even under casual observation, she was clearly competent, efficient and had leadership potential. It was odd, to admire who she was, when she was so obviously dismissive of me. I didn’t push. Her business is her business. But I remained cordial to her, and friendly with everyone else in the office, which was an even racial mix. I was a good friend to Deb, her best friend in the office. Deb was always trying to patch us together, “You two have so much in common…” but it never took.

At the time, my personal office had an eclectic decor. Most lawyers posted their various diplomas and certificates, impeccably framed and impressive. How boring. I mean, really, if they’re sitting across the desk from you, the clients already know you went to school. My office had paintings, antiques, fossils and, nearly always, flowers. I spent most of my waking hours in that room, I wanted to like it. On one wall, I hung a small collection of vintage, mesh handbags. Those who knew me always commented on the incongruity of my collection. Why would a woman, more comfortable in the garden than in the halls of fashion make such a choice? The answer didn’t come out, until I was packing up to leave.

After several years there, the firm from which I sublet was expanding. They needed their office space back. So I was packing up to make the move. It was heavy work, so I took a break at lunch for a solid meal in the lunch room. Deb joined me, bemoaning how much she was going to miss me in the office. Alicia was collating documents at another table. Deb finally got up the courage to ask me about the handbag collection. I paused and tried to explain.

The mesh handbags are remnants of a time where women lacked their own agency.  If lucky, they (the women) were decor on the arm of a successful man. The mesh handbags reflected that, they were delicate and small. They could only carry a woman’s barest necessities–a powder compact, some small change, and perhaps a small pencil and printed cards for society messages. They reflected a time and values that I completely reject, and yet, they were beautiful, and had endured some seventy years. There was a message in that for me–and the collection reflected my struggle to reconcile that history with my present.

When I looked up, Alicia had joined us at the table. For the first time, she looked at me without derision. She confessed that she collected vintage Barbie dolls, for similar reasons. Barbie represented a dominant culture to which she was not invited, only because of the color of her skin. But, she was a little girl and she longed for them–though Barbies were financially beyond her family’s reach. Throughout her childhood, the messages to young girls were all in the Barbie mode–much like the handbags were to women in the 1920s. Now, an adult, she could literally ‘own’ that discrepancy, by owning the very vintage dolls that eluded her in childhood. Her collection was her secret indulgence. The handbags were mine. We both scoured Ebay for our finds.

We looked at each other with fresh eyes, and laughed. The curtain drawn back, we shared our stories. There were more similarities than differences. Both of us had been the first in our families to complete college. We had both worked through college, paying our own way–coming from families that had to stretch the dollars to make life work. She was shocked, having assumed that I’d been born to the kind of family that paved one’s way to success. That had been the source of her distance. She shook her head and apologized. But I shared the guilt. After all, I explained, I’d long admired her–but having been rebuffed I’d backed away! My instincts told me that she was a kindred spirit–but I let the barrier stand. We’d both paid the price in lost opportunities. And here I was, moving away!

I’m ready to unpack some of my keepsakes from Oakland. I’ve scaled back the collection, but some of the best handbags will now go up on my wall. They’re now nearly a hundred years old and I haven’t yet fully unraveled why they appeal to me, while, in the same breath, they embrace everything about gender that I reject. But now they carry extra layers of personal meaning.

We are all more similar than we are different and our failure to recognize that is the source of the biggest of lost opportunities–the chance to connect with one another.