How I learned to be White poems by Tricai Knoll

picture of Tricia Knoll
Photo by Robert R. Sanders  

In How I Learned To Be White, Tricia Knoll describes how her ancestry, education, childhood and work experiences contributed to her understanding and condemnation of white privilege in a world where discrimination runs rampant. About the book, Judith Arcana writes,Tricia Knoll has interwoven intimate details and complex emotions from her own past with the past we call history, and she's done that weaving in poems about how the concept of race is taught and learned in the United States. These poems are about how she grew up, learning as we all do, and how she ‘went another way’ when she understood how she'd been taught to think. She'd grown up -- like almost all white people in the USA -- among adults who were silent or hiding or lying about racism, learning, as if it were a fact, that white means clean. Knoll's choice to write about American racism in poetry prompts vivid, sometimes ironic, images: black and white photos, and chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream serve dual purposes in this verse memoir. Here are poems about her earliest encounters with Black people, about her ancestors and immediate family wielding their whiteness obliviously or knowingly -- as needed. Even in these days of revelation, when the daily news offers countless stories of racism in the USA, this collection is notable, valuable because it shows, as the book's title makes clear, that how we think and feel and behave about race is taught. Tricia Knoll’s deeply felt poems present a hard-won lesson: we can learn, as the poet learned, to go another way.”
  How I lLearned to be White cover image
  Photo by Carolyn Martin.

Lucille Lang Day adds this praise: “The poems in How I Learned To Be White, by Tricia Knoll, wrestle with the important question of how to become a white person of conscience and action in a society that has traditionally conferred privilege on those with Anglo-Saxon and German ancestry. The material Knoll draws on ranges from letters written by ancestors who fought in the Civil War to the deeds of her parents and her own experiences as a teacher. She says, ‘A bubble surrounds me, / shimmer-soap surprise / I thought would never pop / until it did.’ May all our bubbles of privilege, in which we accept the status quo, similarly explode.”

Tricia Knoll grew up in Highland Park, Illinois on Chicago’s north shore. She holds degrees in literature from Stanford University (BA) and Yale University (MAT). Her poetry has appeared widely in many journals including Barrow Street Review, Columbia Journal Online, Verse Virtual, Written River, and more. Six of her poems have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes. She has spent several years investigating how privilege and race affect her life, work that began after serving on Portland’s Human Rights Commission with special concerns for street people and people with disabilities. She herself suffers from a speech disability. Knoll lives in Portland, Oregon with two dogs and a kind husband. She tends a landscape of Pacific Northwest native plants with gardens devoted to pollinators, roses and organic vegetables. Please visit her website,

Click here for selections from the book
Click here to view upcoming events.
Click here to read ancillary material in the Seminar Room.


ISBN 978-1-943826-47-6

First Edition 2018

6" x 9" paperback, 70 pages

This book can be ordered from all bookstores, including Amazon.



Copyright © 2018 by Tricia Knoll





I’m white space
between black dots.
I grew up catching tigers
by the toe. School books
came with unbroken backs.

No one ever called my people X.
Families on TV looked like mine.
I believed money could get me
where I wanted to go.

I own the land I live on.
I was never a melting anything –
fondue, chocolate, molten pot,
hot lava lamp, or zombie brain.

A bubble surrounds me,
shimmer-soap surprise
I thought would never pop
until it did.



Some weekends she took care of us.
Or cleaned. When Mabel fried chicken,
my mother complained the stove got
so greasy she had to scrub it all over again.

For Mabel’s break I got a cup of Postum
heavy with sugar and whole milk.
We held the handles with two fingers
like fine ladies. Her last name, she said,
was French. For faithful and true.

The first black person I knew,
her gentle “bazoom”               
as she called it, so big and soft.
How Mabel held me.

One steamy July, I asked her why 
her skin was dark and mine was light.
She led me to my mother’s garden.
First to the lilacs my father babied.

Then we touched rose petals,
smelled yucky marigolds.
She showed me faces on Grandmother’s pansies
and how snapdragons pinch fingers.

She said we were flowers,
all the garden colors together
made it the best it could be.
She held my hand. 

At four-thirty she walked to the train
back to the south side of Chicago
carrying her cloth shopping bag.
I watched her amble down the block. 

Swollen feet, beige hose bagging, 
her low-heeled shoes
so worn down 
her ankles fell in.

I never knew exactly where she went.
I missed her right away. 
Why didn’t she get new shoes?

My Mother, the Police, and Me

Chicago, Illinois, 1955


I’m eight. My mother drives down West Addison
to a faith-healing dentist, Dr. Otnes,
and takes a hard left turn when we pass his office.
A Chicago squad car flashes her.
She pulls over, sticky with summer. The officer
pulls out his ticket book. I stare at the glove box.

She weeps. He exhales, lips loud.
“My husband is on our school board.
We’re going to her dentist. I got turned around.
I’m a church lady.” He gives her a warning.
This is the first time I see her cry.

New Haven, Connecticut, 1970

I’m twenty-three. May. Orange Street, blocks
from the Green. Riot police spray tear gas
outside the trial of the New Haven Nine
and Bobby Seale. Gas billows fog. I jog home
and shut my windows. The night is long with yelling
and young people running. The President of Yale
says he doubts black revolutionaries
can get a fair trial anywhere in America.
Two thousand miles away,
my mother knows nothing, believes I’m safe.

Rural Clatsop County, Oregon 1989

I’m forty-two. I drive. My mother is passenger.
My daughter snuggles in her car seat
as sunbeams poke through Douglas firs.
A squad car flashes me
for out-of-date license tags. I spout,
“You pulled me over for tags?
I’m from Portland. Where police worry about real crime.
This is all you do, pull people over for license tags?”
My mother slaps my wrist resting on the gearshift.
She’s hushing me, “No. No, don’t, no,” with a tremor. 
I take the ticket. We’re 80 miles from home.

She starts in about garment union men
with hordes of bed bugs in glass bottles.
She worked in the office where Grandfather
managed a garment factory that employed
mostly ex-cons he knew from the days
when garment factories were inside prison walls.
The union men meant to smash the bottles
inside the factory. My grandfather
blew a whistle. His ex-cons came out swinging
baseball bats. Her tale went on to
Eliot Ness and gunfire. I take her comments
as lessons about men,
not law enforcement.   

North Charleston, Carolina, April 4, 2015

I am sixty-seven. My mother is dead.
Today police pull over Walter Scott,
a black forklift operator,
for expired license plate tags.
He winds up shot. Shot dead.
My mother knew more
than I thought she did.
She, the warden’s daughter.

Hillhouse High School, New Haven,
Connecticut, 1970–72

I am the only colored student in my class.
– Langston Hughes, Theme for English B


Student Teaching, 1970

A Yalie come a few hours
each day to this school to practice teach.
This school where one out of four
students never graduated. 
Where I seldom got a movie projector
because other schools took better care of them.
Four years older than my students.
I thought I was cool. Real cool.
Twenty-five black students, one white.

My First Full-Time Teaching Assignment, 1970–1971

The year started pacing the sidewalk on strike.
A week later the assistant principal welcomed me
to the faculty, mostly white.
He handed me one key and two rules –
always keep my classroom door locked and never
let students throw books out the window.

Thirty big-print anthologies titled Prejudice were to last
six weeks with my ninth-grade Honors English,
these black kids and their brand-new out-of-the box
    white teacher.
I memorized Langston Hughes’ Mother to Son.
We read Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.
No one threw stones.

Apple Cider Gone Hard, 1971

For breakfast I drank local fall apple cider
gone a bit hard. Walking to school I was tipsy
and late. I stuck out my thumb.
A beat-up low-riding black four-door
stopped at the curb. Black male driver.
His wife, I guessed, holding a baby.
Two slouching men in the back
and a teenage boy looking at his lap.
The woman in front slid over.
I asked if they could let me off a block
from school. No one said a word.
I asked the woman if she had apple juice
in her baby’s bottle. No, the woman said. Beer.

Senior Honors English, 1972

We completed Hamlet in May
and decided to finish out the year
making a Super 8 movie spoof
with Sly & The Family Stone
as background music.
Willis was the obvious lead.
Tall, the basketball star.
Everyone graduates.
When I Google Willis’ name,
the only man the right age
is serving time.

The White Peacock
(Pavo cristatus mut. alba)

What we use to determine race is really nothing
more than some haphazard physical characteristics,
cultural histories, and social conventions that
distinguish one group from another.    
                                            – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar


This not-so-rare bird sleeps, eats, mates
and twerks like colorful others. Does it think
it deserves more, is loftier, has privilege?
This is not albinism, just a genetic wrinkle
that drained pigment from plumage.

The whites come out as a hue of gardenias
or the rose ineptly named innocence.
Peacocks of the manse wink india-blue eyes,
cold-seeing awareness and java-green
farewell feathers shimmying away.

Let’s Hear It for the Horses


One million dead in the Civil War,
if you count the mules.
Which I do.

I say, blowtorch the rebel men
off their statue mounts and keep
the horses prancing on their pedestals.

They were not traitors
to their country, showed no sign
of caring who they carried,

black or white, male or
female. No one questions
their service to equality.

They did the work
they were asked to do
without a nod at glory. 

Why My Pussy Hat Is Purple with a
Stretched Thread of Silver Silk


You know those little girls with the pink skirts,
with pink sneakers that light up when the heel strikes?
See how they grab a pink hairbow or ruffled socks
of faded lavender at a certain age?

I was never one of those. Whatever pink I bloomed
darkened over decades to a rusty purple,
like dried blood, a certain pride in the scars
that turned me out to march over and over again

beside pink and variegated pussies with signs,
peace symbols, Black Lives Matter banners.
When I put on my pointy ears, see how perfect
aging mauve seems, one tarnished thread through it.

Despite what women learned of hard,
I held on to luster through my times.