7

My Journey

 

July 6, 2016. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. That day was the beginning of the end for me.

But I should probably back up.

I was born and raised in central Pennsylvania. My parents both come from a fairly long line of conservative Christians, and I was brought up in that culture. I went to church every Sunday, youth group every Wednesday, and attended a small private Christian school that was a ministry of the church we attended (all 3 of the aforementioned things were in the same building). Needless to say, the bubble was small.

 

Looking back, it was also extremely white. There were no black families, only a few black children adopted into white families. Until I got to college, I knew approximately 10 black people (which is a generous estimate). I can’t think of any other POC that were in my life at the time. That’s not to say that there weren’t a few around, but there are none that I remember, which is almost just as bad.

 

The most thought I ever put into someone’s race was during basketball season when I was convinced that every black girl on every team was better than me, so I had to work extra hard when playing against them.

 

To be honest, what I’ve written above is pretty much the extent of my dealings with race until very recently. I never actively thought about it, never even celebrated or acknowledged Black History Month, and never in a million years would I have been caught agreeing with a “liberal movement” like Black Lives Matter.

 

I graduated from high school in 2012 and went off to a conservative Baptist college (although it was practically around the corner, only 1.5 hours from home). My freshman year was uneventful, but ended on a high note – I met my future husband, Jared. Until I sat down to write this, I never realized that meeting him was actually the catalyst to this entire journey. He introduced me to a few people on campus who have been very influential in my journey of realization and education about racial issues.

 

At the end of 2014 (the beginning of my junior year), one of those friends began posting articles on Facebook about race in the US. It started off with an article here or there and slowly built to several a day. I could not have been more annoyed. At first I didn't even read them. He was trying to tell me that black people were oppressed and that just working harder wasn't a solution. He was implying that I was prejudiced against black people, which was clearly impossible because I was a Christian who loved everyone, right? He was in my feed day after day, giving me false or exaggerated left-wing statistics that somehow proved that black people were being killed disproportionately by police. I almost blocked him several times, and I definitely complained about his posts to Jared. But because I'm not one to go into an argument without knowing what I'm up against, I started reading his posts one day. Every single one. At first I skimmed, looking for reasons to discard the information as unreliable or downright laughable. But then he would post links to credible studies, and as a math major I had a lot of trouble dismissing the statistics because I love to speak in numbers. Through this, without even realizing it, I was learning and absorbing valuable information. At the time, I was simply learning in order to argue against him. The information hadn't yet made it's way from my brain to my heart, but still I kept reading.

 

Through this period of time, I was also going through a faith journey that I realize now has been inexplicably intertwined with my “woke journey”. As I began to dismantle my version of Christianity, I slowly became more receptive to other ideas I had previously ignored or thrown out. I began questioning my very existence and that of the God I thought I knew, and suddenly everything was up for debate. A few key incidents at my college left me shaken and unsure about the people I trusted as leaders and role models. As I began the process of rebuilding my faith from the ground up, I also began seeing the world in a new light. My friend's Facebook posts started to seem less threatening, and although I wasn't ready to publicly declare myself a BLM supporter, I found myself looking forward to reading the things he shared.

 

Jared and I began having hard conversations about things like privilege. I discovered that the prejudice I had previously denied was alive and well. You say thug, I think black man. You say family on welfare, I think black family (probably without a father figure present). You say anything related to criminal (rapist, thief, drug dealer, etc.), I think of a black man. You say inner city, bad neighborhood, poor district, I think of black people. I realized that I can buy shampoo that works for my hair in any store that sells shampoo. The colors “nude” and “skin tone” actually matched MY skin. I was afraid to walk past black men on the sidewalk and I locked my car doors when traveling through predominantly black neighborhoods because I associated black men with crime. However, even as these ideas surfaced, I was still hesitant to believe that the prejudices white people held against black people (or other POC) contributed to a larger system of racism and oppression against them.

 

The process was slow and brutal at times. I fought it almost every step of the way. Jared and I continued talking, reading, researching, listening, but we still felt like we weren't ready to commit to actually doing anything or associating with BLM. We graduated college in May, got married on June 11, 2016, and moved in together. Not even one month later, our hearts were shattered as we realized how wrong we had been.

 

July 6, 2016. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. That day was the beginning of the end for me.

You know the stories. You've probably seen the videos. But until that moment, I hadn't wanted to believe it.

We watched Alton Sterling die on camera that Tuesday. I didn't shed any tears. It was still only one black man. That doesn't mean the system is out to get them... right?

We watched Philando Castile die on camera that Wednesday. And suddenly our world came crashing down. As we watched the video, I couldn't stop the tears. It felt like my heart was going to be ripped out of my chest. Neither of us slept that night. I distinctly remember eating a hot pocket at 3am with tears streaming down my face, unable to do anything but stare at Jared and my phone in disbelief.

None of those articles had been lies. They weren't left-wing twisted statistics created to lure me to the dark side of liberalism. It was true, and I was an idiot. A racist idiot. That night I made the decision to stop staying quiet, although that decision is still a work in progress.

I know now that the pain I felt is nothing compared to that of my black and brown brothers and sisters, and I would never attempt to compare them. But that night literally changed my life.

I did some scrolling to find my very first Facebook post about race. It was at 1:45am on July 7, that early morning I couldn't sleep. I know that posting to Facebook is one of the smallest possible ways I could contribute to this conversation, and some might even call it slacktivism. I know that there is more to do, and I am still listening and learning to understand how to better fight this system of oppression in my country. But I also know that my journey began with Facebook posts, so I will continue to post in the hopes that I can influence someone in the way my friend influenced me.

My journey is still very young, and I have so much to learn. Reading articles, studies, and blog posts has almost become a hobby. I feel like I've missed out on so much information and so many relationships, but I am determined to catch up if it takes a lifetime. I am fortunate to have found friends who will walk with me on my “woke journey” and encourage me to continue, even if it means defying what I was taught growing up.


 

Moving Forward

 

I think my biggest wish for white people, at least from where I am on this journey, is for them to develop empathy. My experience is not uncommon - I had no friends of color, no names or faces to put to the statistics I was suddenly seeing. The moment that my heart broke that night, when I allowed empathy to bring me to tears, was the moment that every piece of information flooded from my brain to my heart. It held more weight, because those videos didn't simply represent statistics - they represented PEOPLE. Empathy breaks down the barriers that keep us from actually seeing people. When I was growing up, I saw thugs, criminals, poor single mothers, troubled teens, but not PEOPLE. Now I see people everywhere, fighting for their lives in a system that I didn't even believe existed a mere 8 months ago. People of color are not theoretical, and white people need to stop treating them as if they are. It sounds so simplistic, but it took another white person sharing hundreds of articles on Facebook for me to finally see it.

 

I wish white people took the voices of POC as seriously as they do the voices of other white people. But until that happens, white people have a responsibility to use their privilege in a way that elevates the voices and experiences of black and brown people so that they are taken seriously.


I wish white people would stop talking about POC as if they are fundamentally different from us based on the color of their skin and recognize that they are not 'other' - they are sister and brother.


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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