The news and imagery from the past few days have been difficult to deal with. It’s been a nonstop barrage of horror, violence and hate.
With all of the racial tensions in our country right now due to the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile coupled with the horrific incident in Dallas, posts about racism have been popping up all over Facebook. Mine was about my own six-year-old and her amazing innocence. Others have been from people simply disgusted with the whole situation.
While it’s been interesting to read the reaction from across the political spectrum and beyond, only one post made we want to stop what I was doing and publish it. It comes from a friend of my sister — who as it turns out is an amazing writer — and her own experience with learning about racism. As a new mom, her post gives me hope and makes me smile, because it proves that tolerance and understanding CAN win in a society that seems so full of anger and hate that we’re on the brink of disaster.
I still remember when I learned that black meant different. I was in 4th grade at Whiteknact Elementary in East Providence, RI. I had a huge crush on a boy named Keiji because he was (and is) cute and made me laugh. One day, I was gabbing about him while over the house of another girl in my neighborhood, and her mother looked at me in disgust. She asked pointedly “You have a thing for that little black boy that’s always over your house!? Does your mother know!?” I replied that she did…utterly confused as to what even inspired such a question. A couple of days later I overheard this same woman talking with a friend on the phone. She flippantly mentioned her daughters little “n*gger-loving” friend was over and how she was concerned I may “rub off” on her little girl. The next day after school I went to my 3rd-gradee classroom with some questions for my favorite and most trusted teacher Mrs Fincik about what my friends mother had said. She plainly and gently explained to me that there are evil people in the world who think that someone’s skin color makes them lesser.
I took in her words, considered them carefully and from then on, saw the world a little differently. I kept my new knowledge quiet from my friends, ashamed I didn’t know we were different already.
I started to notice things like being followed around Ames department store in 6th grade with a group of black girls I had befriended. I remember the shame I felt one day when one of them was stopped and questioned by an employee about shoplifting while I stood by with a pocket full of stolen scrunchies.
In 7th grade I noticed the mistreatment my friend Corey suffered at the words of my psychotic English teacher Mrs Quatrucci. I wondered if she was so mean to her because she was black or a Jehovas Witness (turns out it was both). I remember my African-American history class with Mr. Martin. He reminded me of Genie from Aladdin. He put the rest of the puzzle together. He gave me the “why” for my friends being different from me. We watched Roots and I cried.
I have quietly kept these lessons close to my heart as I have watched this country tear people down for such an ultimately arbitrary reason as skin color.
I have internally seethed listening to acquaintances and coworkers try to employ #alllivesmatter. I’ve remained quiet every time a friend changes their profile picture for #bluelivesmatter or has posted ignorant memes about doing what you’re told by a cop will keep you from getting shot.
I can’t be quiet anymore. Hashtags are useless. In most cases they simply identify you as a sympathizer and that’s about where it ends. None of this will be solved by hashtags or requests that those who don’t see things the same as you delete you on social media. Hell I’m not even sure how this ever starts to get better.
I do know that there isn’t anything someone could possibly do while seated in their car with their girlfriend and small child to warrant being shot 6 times. I know how sick I felt reading the news about Philando Castile and being filled in about his 30 some odd traffic violations as if it would explain the officers behavior (meanwhile I know the swim times of a white boy who straight up raped a girl).
I know how deeply ingrained this thinking is in our country. That black is different. Black is less than. We can congratulate ourselves all we want for our black actors, musicians, politicians and scientists. But why should that be remarkable to begin with? Shouldn’t that speak to a deeply racist ideology in and of itself? Shouldn’t the fact that someone like Neil DeGrass Tyson is noted for his eloquence and intelligence, as if there was some sort of mental handicap he had to overcome to get to where he is, be a signal that there is still something very wrong with the way this society thinks?
If you want to show your support for law enforcement, that’s great. If you truly do respect ALL human life, that’s wonderful. But stop using that as an excuse to blind yourself to a very real problem. It’s not some imaginary issue off in the ether manufactured by people to excuse bad behavior. If you do think that…don’t unfriend me…please. Talk to me. Ask me about how heartbroken that little girl was learning that society saw her as better than her friends for no reason other than lack of melanin in her skin. I will be more than happy to fill you in on what institutionalized racism is and to dispel the little fairy tale you believe about the justification for the murder of Philando Castile or Alton Sterling or Sandra Bland or Eric Garner or Trayvon Martin or…
“I started to notice things like being followed around Ames department store in 6th grade with a group of black girls I had befriended. I remember the shame I felt one day when one of them was stopped and questioned by an employee about shoplifting while I stood by with a pocket full of stolen scrunchies” is just about the perfect way to describe the effects of institutional racism in America.
Erin’s post moved me and hopefully it moved you, too. With wisdom like that, she’ll have very little trouble when it comes time to teach her own child that there is no difference between people but a little bit of melanin.
Featured image by Getty Images/pool