Martin Luther King, Jr. was my childhood hero. I remember getting a biography about him as a book club selection in my Scholastic order, along with a biography of Mary Lou Retton and a novelization of Karate Kid, Part II. I devoured the book, touched deeply by the plight of black people so long ago and so grateful that this battle had been won. I was deeply shocked and offended when I found out there were still racists in the world, and decided they just hadn’t gotten the memo. Racism was over! Martin Luther King, Jr might have died, but he still won.
As I got older, I found out things were not as cut and dried as they seemed. People I loved deeply exposed themselves as having archaic attitudes that made me feel a little sick, even as they proclaimed “I’m not racist…BUT.” It seemed you could admire black entertainers while holding judgement over those not succeeding at singing and dancing on television. But I still felt I was above these people. I was many things, but at least I wasn’t a RACIST, for goodness sakes.
Perhaps I was naive in thinking that racism was relegated to the realm of the overt, like the step-father of my ex-boyfriend, a KKK Grand Dragon (one of the reasons we broke up.) Or like people making jokes about “jigaboos” or complaining about “Those People.” I held myself to a higher standard. I loved Dr. King. I had a black friend (who wasn’t “ghetto” of course.) I did think black people were a little scary. A little angry. They didn’t know I wasn’t like that! But maybe they were a little overly sensitive. After all, a lot of water had passed under the bridge. Can’t we all just get along?
I was working for a website geared towards local moms, and we were at an event trying to get people to sign up for our email newsletter. All I had to do was say “Ok, great! What’s your email address?” A simple question, completely void of judgement of any kind. That was how I had been wording it, even after I had gotten a few women who didn’t have email addresses.
Until a woman walked up. A black women. She looked completely, for lack of a better word, “normal.” Her clothes looked like the clothes of any other professional woman on a weekend. Her manner was friendly, she was enthusiastic and intelligent. All I had to say was “Great, can I have your email address?”
But that’s not what came out of my mouth at all.
I said “Do you have an email address?”
I had no reason to ask that.
98% of the women I had talked to that day had provided an email address.
Of course she had an email address and she was happy to provide it for me.
But I couldn’t shake my sick feeling the rest of the day.
I had treated her differently.
Why had I done that?
I had assumed every single white women who had come through my line, regardless of clothing, manner, or socioeconomic status, had an email address.
But I condescended to the very first black woman in my line.
I had to acknowledge it was the color of her skin.
There was no other option.
I had to look at myself, this justice warrior, this loud voice for equality, and realize that racism goes FAR beyond lynchings, off-color jokes, and being against inter-racial dating. I had assumed it meant hate. I didn’t hate anyone. I certainly didn’t hate the woman whose email address I had asked for! I probably would have wanted to be her friend. But clearly I had some work to do. And acknowledging this was the first step.
And by no means the last.
After I realized I was secretly racist I started seeing it everywhere. I saw it in the manners of the librarians who would stop little black boys in the children’s section and ask them if they needed any help in a tone that clearly said “You do not belong here.” I saw it in lives of the white couple who made caring for truant black boys their life’s work, and yet referred to them “affectionately” with racial slurs. I saw it in the white family who adopted a little black girl, one of the smartest, most beautiful children I had ever seen, and watched them attempt to snuff out all that set her apart while complaining she was “sneaky” and “hard to control.” I saw it in every person who sneered and sighed over “their culture.”
I was by no means done.
It took me a long time to realize I couldn’t ask one black person to explain all of black history to me. To approach the times I did not understand with my ears and heart ahead of my mouth. To stop my knee jerk reactions, born of privilege, and attempt to truly consider what 400 years of slavery and 150 years of oppression would do to me, my family, my friends. What it would be like to always be considered dangerous, uneducated, and ungrateful unless I carefully adopted the posture, clothing, manner, and even names of the same people who had hung my ancestors from trees?
I can’t ever know. Not really. But instead of absolving me, it increases my resolve. The less I can understand, the harder I must try. The more I must listen. The more voices I must amplify above my own, voices that need to be heard. The more I need to understand that my pre-conceived notions MUST not trump the lived experience of those who are still under oppression.
And if you think this oppression doesn’t exist, I refer you to my story above, amplified by millions.