I have been complacent. It might even be more accurate to say I have the benefit of being complacent, but it is starting to feel like downright negligence.
I don’t want to speak for other people or share others’ stories because they are not mine. What I want to do is be a witness and share my own stories I have seen and heard. My silence feels like consent, and the stories I am about to share I most certainly do not agree with which is why it is time they are shared. I can’t ignore or deny they have happened.
I was told from the time I was old enough to like boys and have crushes that I would not be allowed to bring a black man home. If I dated a black man, I would be disowned. I never gave it much thought because when I was in junior high, my school didn’t have any black students, and there were zero black families in my section of the city even though I lived less than 20 minutes from Chicago. Once I reached high school, which I attended in a small Southern Tennessee town, I thought all high school boys were beneath me, I knew there was more to life than immature high school boys, and so I really didn’t date as much.
When I started 9th grade at South Junior High School in Cowan, TN, I was met by the white unwelcoming committee. Within the first week of school, I had a band of five white male classmates inform me they were staging a walk-out because our school was not segregated, and they didn’t want black students there. (I would love to say that I was in junior high 50 years ago but unfortunately this incident happened in 1993). They wanted to know if I was in. I declined.
Less than a few weeks later, I found myself cornered in the girls’ locker room by Jill, Carrie and Mandy. This white girl trio decided they wanted to gang up on me and pick a fight. I did nothing to instigate this, yet I was forced to deal with it. Before things fully escalated, two other girls, Jessica and Tasha, came over and intercepted the unwelcoming committee.
Jessica calmly exclaimed, “Leave her alone! She didn’t do shit to you!” as Tasha silently stood next to her in support.
The three girls just wandered off back to their gym lockers throwing glances at me over their shoulders.
Jessica and Tasha just happened to be black. After that moment, Jessica also invited me to eat lunch at her table. I happily sat at the “black” table because the races did eat at separate tables for the most part. It felt nice to be accepted and not be on guard every moment of the day. I spent my lunch times laughing and joking, talking about our similar tastes in music, and also answering a lot of questions about where I came from. However, this kind gesture by Jessica brought more scrutiny upon me. There were whispers around school that I was a “N” lover. I became labeled and branded. What pissed me off the most wasn’t even being labeled, it was that the same white people who discarded me and threatened me felt like they had the right to judge who I associated with.
High school showed me how much racism and judgment was still alive. It was hot and rampant like a fire through a dry thicket. I even had a friend in high school whose dad was in prison for murdering a black man because he happened to be black in the wrong place.
My ignorance and refusal to fully see this entire picture hit an apex my senior year of high school. Even reflecting on this event affects me on a deeper level today. I had three friends: Eric, Jonathan and Jonathon. Jonathan with an “a” was black, and the rest of us were white. Eric worked at a pizza joint up on the “mountain” in Monteagle. After school one day, the “Jons” and I were riding around town together listening to music and hanging out. I had the great idea to go visit Eric at work. In the past, I had surprised and harassed him at his work and also enjoyed his cheesy craft. I started to convince the “Jons” of my great idea. Jonathan with no hesitation refused to go. I had no idea why. (I only lived in this area for a few years, so I wasn’t as aware of the unwritten rules and threats that were a part of the town history). I continued to try to convince him unaware of the reason why.
Finally Jonathan said, “Black people aren’t allowed in Monteagle.”
This response made zero sense to me.
I replied, “What? What do you mean black people aren’t allowed in Monteagle?”
He repeated, “Black people aren’t allowed in Monteagle. We know not to go up there. We will be killed.”
I really could not understand this. Surely that could not happen. That wasn’t legal!
I found myself getting riled up, “Fuck those redneck assholes! You will be with me. I don’t give a shit what they think.”
I suppose my outrage and dismissal of the unwritten rules seemed valiant at the time, but in reflection, what Jonathan was saying was something I could not fully understand. Monteagle was the city where my friend’s father murdered a black man. No black people lived in Monteagle, but more accurately, no black people were allowed to live up there. There were city lines that were not allowed to be crossed. While I was unafraid to confront this hatred head on, I had nothing to lose, and I was quite naive; it wasn’t my life on the line or my life to lose. While my 17-year-old intentions were good, to think I could stop hundreds of years of racism by dragging my black friend to a pizza place was misguided and dangerous.
The most difficult examples for me to write about are the familial ones. Before I have even committed these words to paper, I feel shame pulsing through my body. But if I can’t admit these were things I was told, then there is no way to absolve them. White people claim racism is dead, and black people can’t let go of the past, but it is hard to let go of a past that is still our present and our future.
I was often told black people were lazy, black people were taking jobs from white people, and not only were black people taking jobs from white people but they didn’t deserve these jobs. My family referred to black people as animals and more specifically monkeys. They laughed at the cartoons drawn of Michelle Obama being portrayed as a monkey. When politics came up in our family, I was always chastised. I never hesitated voting for Barack Obama; he was the best candidate who represented my beliefs. Several of my family members whose political beliefs were middle of the road, but leaned more towards the Democratic side, refused to vote for a black man even though in the previous elections these family members had voted for Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry. I suppose it was easier to be a Democrat when older white men were the face of the party.
At family gatherings, which usually only happened a few times a year, I found myself constantly being defensive and appalled. We never had one family gathering where other races were not brought up. Like most other families on Thanksgiving, we watched all three NFL football games, and our days were filled with food, football, and family. Like clockwork, my family began talking in their idea of a stereotypical black voice when a black player scored a touchdown, and they strutted around the coffee table mocking the black players. They made fun of the way the black players looked focusing on their noses, gums, teeth and skin color. If any white player made a catch or had a tackle, it had to be noted that the player was white. This always devolved into how there aren’t enough white players in the NFL.
For years, I just quietly sat listening to this around me. Never agreeing and never participating, but privately seething and disgusted. As I became older and found my voice, I began to ask my family to not talk this way around me. I told them I was offended, and I told them it bothered me. I knew I couldn’t change their way of thinking, but I hoped they could respect me enough to not do it in front of me especially since we only saw each other two times a year. My family decided to not respect me or my beliefs, and they most certainly didn’t respect black people.
I had a choice at this point. I tried to be silent, but it made me feel compliant. I tried to speak my truth over and over again, and I was dismissed. The only thing I had left was to boycott Thanksgiving, and I did. I decided to go to another friend’s house and celebrate Thanksgiving with her, her family and her in-laws. My family was outraged, but I felt I was left no choice.
It would make this all a lot easier if my family was an outlier. I wish I could say my family was the only racist family, but I know it’s not true. That’s what makes this issue so prevalent. What is even sadder and maybe the biggest problem of all is my family didn’t think they were being racist.
Racism and the killing of black people at the hands of white people is a real problem. White ego and fear is still taking precedence over black injustices and murder. It has not only been this hellish week, but for as long as I have noticed that racism was still a problem in our “free and equal” country of the United States, and I can’t be quiet. I can’t idly sit waiting for old systems to change.
One way I have tried to make change is through teaching. I have taught at the college and high school levels for over 11 years. It has always been a part of my teaching curriculum to introduce multi-cultural literature. It is not right for me to speak on another race’s or another ethnicity’s behalf, but I can use literature to help facilitate discussions. In my classes, I have relied on many different short stories, essays, and novels. The ones that seem to stir up the most discussions, feelings, and outrage are Brent Staples’ essay, “Black Men and Public Space,” Peggy McIntosh’s essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” and the novel “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest Gaines.
I want to talk about these pieces of literature in my classroom and the discussions they provoke because I continue to see the resistance of recognizing the injustices black people face. I will say more than 75% of the students are open to reading these pieces of literature. They are thoughtful, concerned, and open-minded; however, that doesn’t represent the other 25% of the students. The other 25% of students bubble up with anger.
They make exclamations of, “Racism is dead,” “I am tired of hearing about this,” and “Black people need to get over it.”
I watch students shut down as soon as the word race is mentioned, putting up walls and defenses. I have watched students try to dismantle the words on the pages I make them read. I have had students lash out in essays I made them write. I hear stories of how they too have encountered hardships, but they have overcome them; all it takes is hard work. As if all black people need to do is stop complaining and work harder. There is no recognition of deep, systematic problems in our education, healthcare, law enforcement and prison system, nutrition, housing, and many more. It goes beyond not wanting to recognize it; it is the refusal of wanting to learn about it and becoming educated on how our country is set up. Systems are in place to keep the white status quo.
I bring this point up because I see the same issues of racism still being bred in our youth. I see this problem; I hear this problem. I can’t pretend racism doesn’t exist because I hear white students still perpetuating it and supporting it even if it is unknowingly. However, not knowing is not an excuse and doesn’t mean racism just disappears because of the refusal to see it.
With every unjustified black person’s death that happens, I feel more helpless. Knowing that I feel helpless to change rigged systems that keep black people from achieving the same things that I can more easily as a white woman is overwhelming. But that’s exactly it; I get that luxury to hide away. I can tune out the world and forget for a time that racism is happening because I don’t have to deal with it personally. It is not that I don’t care because I do, but it feels daunting.
Black people keep speaking about their injustices, yet some white people still want to deny it. I think it is important to support others who face injustices that are talking to deaf ears especially when they are right. That is what I am trying to do: listen and support. I have been thoughtfully thinking about how I want to personally address this issue of racism and police brutality that plagues America. I feel I have the most power with my written words.
I have begun writing to my state’s representatives. I don’t feel I can make changes without the people who represent my county and state. I want my representatives to know the issues that matter to me. I want my representatives to know that real change needs to happen. I want my representatives to know that black lives matter to me.
I have wanted to write this blog as well, but I have been avoiding it. It hurts me and makes me feel shame to admit that white people behave like this. But my hurt and shame is nothing in comparison to the senseless loss of black lives of my fellow Americans who have the right to same things I do. My whole purpose in writing this blog is recognition: recognition that racism is not dead. Equality and equity are catchphrases with no real substance. I wanted to share these stories that make me feel shame because I disagree with the white people who want to pretend that racism doesn’t exist. I disagree with the white people who promote, share, and teach racism. I just want the white people who refuse to acknowledge racism and the systems in place to keep the white status quo to know that I don’t agree with them; I do not consent. I also wanted to encourage others who do want and wish for change to find their own ways of doing so.
This shouldn’t just be a “black problem;” this is an “American problem.”