We had an avocado green rotary dial phone that hung on the wall in our kitchen next to the stove. It had a long cord that could be stretched to allow my mom to sit in the living room while talking. One night when I was in second grade, the phone rang. My dad, who was sitting at the kitchen table, answered.
His side of the conversation consisted of short sentences. “Yes. No. What happened. I’ll take care of it.” I didn’t know who was on the other end of the line, but when he hung up, I knew that I was in trouble. I didn’t get in trouble often, especially with my dad, but all kids know the look a parent gets when they are upset about something you’ve done.
“That was Stacie’s mother. She said Stacie came home crying from school today because you said some mean things to her. Did you say these things?”
Never one to lie, I confirmed what Stacie’s mother said.
“Go to your room. I’ll be there in a minute.”
That was one of only two spankings I ever got from my dad. I don’t remember what I said to Stacie to hurt her feelings, but I do remember what my dad told me afterward. “You are the same as everyone else. You treat everyone the same. And you don’t hurt people on purpose.”
That lesson stuck. Those words became my principles.
Sometimes I wonder what dad would think about things that are happening in America today. He grew up in a small East Texas town where his family had lived for generations. He went to school during desegregation and was a young man during the civil rights movement. If you asked him if he was a racist or hated black people, he would have told you no. Everyone is the same.
Still, he (and I) grew up in a time and place where the n-word was just a word. No one ever thought about the negative connotations or the hate that was laced into its meaning. He was taught there are “good” blacks and “bad” blacks and that was something he taught me, along with other racial stereotypes, through his words and his actions. Not because he harbored any hate in his heart, but because that was all he knew. Another perspective was never offered. That was the way it was.
When I graduated from college, I was offered a job in Houston and accepted. I didn’t realize the difference in the level of cultural diversity I experienced until I moved back home after Cady was born and returned to work. I was shocked to see so many white people. It seemed like everyone was white.
During a meeting at work, someone asked what changes or improvements we could make. I looked around the room of white people and responded, “Well we could start by hiring some people of color.” Everyone looked at me confused.
“But we have those Asian guys over in engineering.”
I was stunned. I had no idea how to respond. I also didn’t realize that was my first eye-opening moment of what it might be like to be a person of color. After that, I started paying attention at different places I worked and different businesses I went into. How many people of color were employed there? How many were in positions of leadership? How open were companies in their attitudes, not publically, but behind closed doors?
I didn’t know the seeds of change had been placed in my heart, but they were there, diligently working away and making me question everything I ever thought I knew.
A few years later, I was talking to a black friend about local accounting firms. “I interviewed there, but they don’t hire black people.”
I was stunned when she told me that. “Are you serious?”
“Jennifer…” And then she gave me a look.
I started thinking about the people that worked there and realized she was 100% right. I was so offended for her. I was outraged.
“Why didn’t you file a complaint? Why didn’t you do something about it?”
“What’s the point? I got a better job and it wouldn’t have changed them anyway.”
The planted seeds started to sprout. Racial inequality was never far from my mind. I started noticing things I would have never noticed 10 years before and started seriously self-examining my thoughts and reactions. Why did I think they way I did? What were my knee jerk reactions? Where was that rooted? Did I really treat everyone as an equal?
And then Trayvon Martin was murdered.
The seeds that had sprouted burst into full blooms inside my heart. I read and I read and I read. And I asked questions. And I witnessed. And I believed. And I changed.
And since then I’ve continued to grow and learn and empathize and grow and learn some more.
Racism isn’t based on the individual feelings of one man or one woman. It isn’t about being a good or a bad person. It is a system of thinking that has been passed down through generations of families. This system has such far reaching implications that I, as a white person, will never completely understand it. But I know that it exists. And I know that if we do not address the sins of our fathers and their fathers and their fathers… then this system will continue to exist.
It hurts. It is painful. I feel shamed. It is hard. Telling these truths. Writing these words. It isn’t easy. It shouldn’t be. But most of the time the right thing is not the easy thing.
I know some people who read this will not want to agree with me. That awfulness they feel when this subject is brought up makes them pull away. It makes us want to hide. “But I’m a good person. I don’t hate anyone.” I’m not saying that isn’t true. But I am saying that we have lived too long behind the veil of a system that allows bad things to happen to people of color. We have ignored that veil for too long. It is time to pull it aside and cast light on the darkness. Because that is how we drive it away.
This post has been on my mind for awhile, but I wasn’t sure how to put it together. Thanks to a prompt from Mama Kat’s Writer’s Workshop it all came together.