I’ve stood on the periphery of racism my entire life.
As a gold-reddish-haired, blue-eyed, freckled white girl, I spent my earliest years becoming friends with Calvin and James, two little Black boys who lived across the street, and Carol Taylor who lived down the street. Very few memories of early childhood don’t include Calvin, James, and Carol. Hot summer nights playing Red Rover and Mother May I, freeze tag, swing tag, whiffle ball, horse, truth or dare. Games changed as we grew but our friendship remained.
Our village matriarchs Mrs. Kahn, Mrs. Taylor, Big Mama Davis, Ms. Mickles, Mary Lee, and the older folks who hung out on the corners acted as the neighborhood watch, keeping a protective eye as we played — and scolding us as needed.
I watched as Carol and Thessie Ann got their hair pressed and rubbed grease into their ashy skin after swimming lessons. They marveled at my bright red sunburned nose and shoulders and asked what it meant when we had to go in to “say the Rosary.”
I joined my siblings to attend the Catholic school and church across town — where my classmates were wealthy and, except for one or two families from the Philippines, White.
Suddenly, my neighborhood and everything I knew was to be feared and avoided as classmates spoke in whispered towns about “black people” and “the projects” — never allowed to come over to play.
At school, teachers “explained” the laziness and ignorance of welfare recipients against a backdrop of pictures portraying Black and Brown bodies while I fumed.
At home, I watched outsiders come through our neighborhood slinging racial slurs and inciting violence only leaving the police to handcuff those trying to defend themselves.
I was called “N-word-lover” more than a few times by high school classmates who took issue with the boys I invited to dances and games.
My 18-yr-old self’s decisions ultimately took me out of my neighborhood after high school and away from those childhood friends when I entered a convent and spent many years living in Asia. I was unable to return for weddings, the births of children, and the deaths of so many of these loved ones.
My heart still aches from the lost relationships.
Since returning to the U.S. and leaving the convent, I’ve married my husband (African American) and raised three biracial children. I’ve moved closer to the center of racism, by association. I’ve witnessed it even more up close and personal.
I’ve seen people cross the street, clutch their purse, lock their doors when they see my husband.
I’ve seen the shock on a police officers’ face after pulling over my husband, only to see me in the passenger’s seat.
I’ve experienced being overlooked, made to wait, seated in the worst location in restaurants — as if we didn’t exist or didn’t deserve to be there.
I’ve witnessed the assumption that my husband or my son was “the help” in restaurants, hotels, and conferences.
And I’ve moved across the country with three children, no home and no job lined up after my husband was denied a promotion he rightfully earned because the administrator said, “he’d be better for the job in a more ‘urban’ setting.”
Yes, I’ve been on the periphery of racism my entire life —
Yet still, every single day I face the brutal reality that I might say or do something that is racist.
Not because I’m hateful or evil — but because I’ve been raised in a world that is predicated on the White experience and the reality that the social construct of race relies on “otherness.”
I have a profound difficulty understanding hate, especially hate based on the color of someone’s skin. The entire idea baffles me. I just don’t understand.
And so, sometimes in the past, I would prefer to give a person the benefit of the doubt and explain any other reason for why someone was rude, disrespectful, or awkward and uncomfortable towards my husband or children. I’d try to reconfigure and excuse the ignorance. I don’t want to believe that someone I know and love might think of them as less than or other, even if unconsciously.
But I’ve come to realize that even this desire for racism to not exist is, in itself, racist because it questions the lived experiences of Black people. Something I will never experience.
I can get angry and frustrated. I can be sad and hurt. I can sympathize and even empathize — but I can never truly KNOW the day-in and day-out exhaustive experience of being a Black person in America.
I live on the periphery.
And I am here to tell you:
You can believe that Black Lives Matter with all your heart, soul, and being. You can believe that this phrase represents the bare minimum of decency and that your Black family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and strangers deserve respect and equality.
You can believe Black Lives Matter AND still say and do racist things. You can believe Black Lives Matter AND benefit from systemic racism. You can believe Black Lives Matter AND be ignorant in your understanding of history, oppression, and the Black experience.
Despite your desire to not be racist, or even to be anti-racist, you might still say or do racist things and you still benefit from systemic racism.
This doesn’t make you hateful or evil; it makes you a White person in the United States of America.
Accept it. Live with it. Do something about it.