I grew up in the Midwest, a white girl with low exposure to other races and cultures and a naive understanding of racial relations. I’ve known a lot of racists, but not even one person who would admit to it. “Racist” is a four-letter word to most white people. I’ve even heard someone say that being called a racist was worse than being called the n-word—and they truly believed it. It incites instant defensive anger and usually a few credentials in hopes of proving otherwise.
I have black friends.
There are black people at my church and they don’t think I’m racist.
I have BB King albums.
In the Bible belt, politeness is everything, and racism isn’t polite, so it plays out in passive ways. Growing up, I had some exposure to blatant racism—some even in my own family. I knew that was wrong. However, if you’d asked me about racism back then, I would have had the idealistic answer about how we’re all the same and believed that most people were treated the same. I probably would have equated racist white people to bad apples and assured you that to most people, color is a non-issue. If the subject of racial inequality had come up, I might have even been defensive.
When I began dating a black man, I knew a few people in my family would oppose my decision. What I wasn’t prepared for was the response I got from so many that were trying to warn me of what was to come. Some of these premonitions came with specifics, usually some ill-informed anecdote they'd seen on TV or in movies; however, the overwhelming majority of people gave the same ominous warning. It’s going to be difficult.
They turned out to be right. But it wasn’t hard for the reasons they thought it would be. What was difficult about marrying a black man wasn’t the racism and judgment that I experienced for marrying a black man; it was the realization that I’d spent my whole life not being subject to the kind of treatment that was everyday life for him, and for people of color everywhere.
The difficulty was in watching my husband open the doors for white people who were looking at him as less-than. The difficulty was in watching him get followed through department stores or even refused service from an older woman working at the Walmart deli. It was in the way he went out of his way to make white people not fearful of him. It was his grace with people who he had every right to be hateful to. His resilience made my growing awareness more painful; I realized that racism, whether it’s overt or subtle, is not something escapable. No matter how kind or respectable he was, the color of his skin was all some people needed to see in order to draw conclusions about him; where his skin tone often led to negative assumptions about him, mine afforded me the benefit of the doubt.
This was a realization that shook my former, idealistic self to the core. The world I’d always thought I knew didn’t exist. Not only did I see the effects of living life facing blatant racism, but I even began to see the polite racism that daily reinforces racial inequality.
Over the past few years, as the racial climate of this country has been escalating, I’ve found it impossible to remain silent. After years of gradual progression toward social awareness, I reached a tipping point and could no longer keep quiet. Day-after-day, I’m seeing the denial of racial inequality, accusations of “playing the race card” and excuses for outright disregard for black lives. From the shooting of unarmed black men because of their “wide set nose” or “threatening” appearance to the instant search for something in their history to justify the excessive force, I see it now for what it is, I'm ashamed that there was a time that I didn't, and I want others to see it.
My outspokenness has rubbed people the wrong way. I've been told that I'm being divisive, and that I'm making myself part of the problem and not the solution. Some of my personal relationships have gotten awkward. I recognize that my white privilege is reflected even there—when black people speak up about racial injustice, they are accused of being “race-baiters”, “playing the victim” and pegged as “angry black people”. I've caught a glance at how careful most black people are with white people that they care about, censoring real feelings and experiences to avoid making things uncomfortable. I’ve noticed how many white people have a black acquaintances or even “friends” and borrow things that they like from black culture but will shut down if the subject of the black experience in America comes up. The burden of making white people comfortable remains on black people.
It's arguable, whether the past few years have set racial relations back or just brought to the surface what's been the ugly underbelly of America all along, but I believe that this is a time that will be in history books as an awakening. I'm hoping that we will all step up, force dialogue and confront these issues, regardless of the reaction. I'm just a formerly-ignorant white girl from the Midwest (that undeniably still has much to learn), but I think that honest dialogue will do one of two things for all of us:
1. Bring understanding, empathy, healing and unity, OR
2. Make it very clear who is not concerned with matters of oppression or inequality.
The unique, closeup view that marrying a black man has given me has been equal parts beautiful and heartbreaking. I won't stop speaking up because I want my son to live in a different world than this. I don't want to worry if my husband gets pulled over or travels through the country. The world may not be what my young, naive self thought it was, but I'll no longer be keeping its secret.
28 Days is a project about perspectives of people whose lives intertwine with the black struggle either personally or through others close to them. Along with their perspective they entrust us with what they hope for moving forward.
We hope this helps drive conversation, breaks down barriers and incites change.
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