I had someone ask me this week, “I just don’t understand why you care so much?” Here’s why I care:
In 2016 racism hit home, my youngest sister was selected for Homecoming Court at New Hope High School in Madison County, Alabama. My dad and stepmom, a beautiful Dominican woman, married while I was in college and they had my youngest sister. In no time it seems she grew into a beautiful, smart young woman. As our family filled with joy watching her on the football field that night, little did we know the animosity that was brewing with some of the other students she went to school with. Maybe it was the fact they decided she wasn’t as ‘white’ as they were. Or maybe it was that she took her black friend to the Homecoming Dance, but that night a group of students rolled her lawn, wrote ‘SLUT’ across her yard, and defecated on her porch. You read that correctly. My dad filed a police report and cleaned it up, but of course in a small white town where Confederate flags fly, nothing ever came of it. But there’s also something that happens in one’s mind with an act this vile and embarrassing, you don’t want to be the ‘kind of person that things like this would happen to.’ This doesn’t fit into the picture, perfect with a cherry on top ‘American Dream’ that so many other people seem to be experiencing, so you don’t talk about it and you just pray it will go away. My sister changed schools.
A mere year earlier, in the fall of 2015, my ‘Huntsville is such a diverse, open-minded city’ bubble officially burst. After I walked my daughter to school, another man who walked his child to school caught up to me and greeted me. Shaking his head he said, “6 buses, 6 buses.” I knew he was referring to the new efforts of our school system to integrate more fully our schools. He continued, “This is awful, we don’t want their kind at our school.” I do not know what my face looked like and remain upset that I did not say, “Yes we do!” Instead I said, “I’m sorry I have to go,” and just started jogging. I began crying at the fact that someone would refer to children as ‘their kind’ as if they were an animal, a foreign unknown that was not human, something that was not like ‘us’ and therefore dangerous. It was disgusting. And on that day I realized that this city of Huntsville that I love so dear, this city that I had painted in my mind as a diverse, open minded place – still suffered from racism just like everywhere across the country. The comments that would follow and the quick upheaval from public schools by white families, remains disturbing. But for many it was a call to action because Huntsville is better than that.
Growing up a white, female in the South, even if you break free from the ingrained racism that has surrounded you since birth, you still get roped into this ‘we’ category, that because of your skin color, all white people assume you are in some kind of alliance with them. Chances are that you have witnessed throughout your life white men and women joking about people who are not white. This is not only uncomfortable, it’s stomach twisting. If you speak up as I did numerous times, you are quickly made fun of too and called names like n***** lover. I was invited to an out of town formal in Memphis while at college and because at that age I still believed the word ‘No’ was impolite, I said yes, plus the boy seemed like a gentlemen and was from a ‘good’ family. That weekend I listened to the ’n’ word said probably a thousand times. I distanced myself and stayed close to some other girlfriends on the trip. But then something happened that to this day makes me sick to my stomach. A big group was in one of the hotel room suites, my date looked out the window and saw a black, homeless man sitting in the alley below. He quickly called his buddies over. Us girls didn’t realize what was going on until the window was opened and 3 liters of soda were dumped on the human being below all while the boys were laughing. At that point I left, and even though I would later be talked to about how it was ‘rude’ of me to leave, I learned that there is power in breaking away from the crowd, power in standing up, power in choosing to share McDonalds with a homeless man over worrying about what a rich, white boy might think of me. That boy now has a building named after him at the university because his family donated a significant amount of money. I do like to believe people grow and change from ways they may have acted as a youth. (Sidebar – isn’t it interesting that in the South we have buildings and roads in which white people donate a great deal of money to have named after them, yet we have many buildings and roads also named after black people simply for being heroic.)
Acts of racism do not happen overnight. They begin with a thought that certain people are superior to others, with the simplicity of a single thought flowing through the brain like a drop of poison. And poison doesn’t just flow through the brain it feeds on fear, anger, insecurity and selfishness, and soon it flows out of the tongue in the form of a degrading joke or racial slur. Soon it seeps into our eyes defining how we see the world, and eventually how our children see the world. It’s a cycle just like abuse, until we decide to stop it. Until we intentionally change our view of the world to see the beauty in being different; until we gain the courage to speak up not just for ourselves but for the voiceless; until we break away from our picture perfect lives and are able to see that beauty lives in other parts town; until we are able to look at our fellow human and see God’s eyes looking back at us; until we cast a light into the shadows and acknowledge the pain that lives in this country, then we break the cycle.
In the land of the free and the home of the brave, some are free to terrorize others that they see as different or ‘less than’, while those that are different live in fear. We as a society wish these unpleasant situations and conversations away. We wish people would stop talking about them, so they will be once again be swept under the rug and we can go back to our pretty white lives. But after centuries of wishing it away, that doesn’t seem to have worked and here we are in the year 2020 dealing with something we should have dealt with a long time ago. Here some of us are just now realizing the atrocities that were committed for centuries in our own backyard. Here some of us are just now realizing that racism still exists. We here the phrase ‘be the light’, maybe it’s time to ‘be the lighthouse.’ Don’t just shine your light where it’s comfortable, shine in the shadows. Shine so bright that it exposes the pain of our past, the pain people still live in today and drives out the darkness that lives in the human mind. For the sake of our children don’t leave this for yet another generation to have to deal with.
This is not a political issue, this is a human issue. My husband and I do not vote party lines, we vote for the best candidate. I grew up in a world where you did that, not where every little thing was divisive. This issue of racial justice is one we should all stand up for.
Break away from being just a good little white girl and be something more. Find your voice, speak up, stand up for what’s right, raise your children to be inclusive, and if you can, if you have time – get involved in the life of a child living in poverty. Not because it’s ‘charity’, but because your involvement in a child’s life could be that child’s success. Don’t you remember the people who touched your life and encouraged you to dream? You can be that for someone else and in doing so create a world where not just some are successful, but more and more are able to thrive not just survive.
The photo above is one I took at summer camp where I teach creative writing. That day I brought costumes and props so we could dress up as super heroes. I wasn’t sure if the kids would love it, they did. The fierceness of the young girls in this photo is something to behold. Why would anyone ever want to take that fierceness away and make these girls feel like ‘less than’?