I remember when it sank into my heart and pulled it down to the ground.
I went to a Catholic elementary school, my parents pinched pennies to pay the high tuition that would teach me right from wrong and protect me from the vulgar, cruel world of public school.
I don’t remember what the teacher said, but I remember how it made me feel.
And I didn’t know how to fix it.
I couldn’t stop being white. So I couldn’t stop feeling guilty.
It hurt my heart when I saw “black people” and thought that they hated me for being white.
I cringed and tried to smile when we were at the mall food court, or at Wal-Mart.
I held the door, stepped aside to let them go first in line, grieved for the past I had absolutely nothing to do with.
I felt ashamed, embarrassed, afraid.
Mostly I was ignored or treated as an odd child for these actions.
My mother was confused about my behavior.
I couldn’t even bear to explain.
In middle school, I met my friend Maya* (name changed) – she was black – and carefree, hilarious and rambunctious. We were in the same nerdy circle of friends – we were in an after-school club called Battle of the Books and another called Kaleidoscope.
We were good friends throughout high school. Her mom wasn’t around much. Her dad lived far away. So we had a lot of fun at her house – mostly messing with expired food and random stuff we found in the garage.
Once, we had a soccer game near where her dad lived, so he came to watch. He was tall and dark with a booming baritone voice. My heart ached for Maya when I saw how much her dad loved her, but he was so far away. This was the only time I had ever met him.
We had a lot of goofy jokes, silly pranks, played games and sang songs. We both liked the Beastie Boys for no good reason. We both played Tomb Raider and ran track. (She was a LOT faster than me). We were good friends.
Maya was the only black person in our group of friends (that I can recall). I wonder now if she felt uncomfortable. My mom asked me a lot of questions about her and her family. I started to adopt a little bit of a “charitable” attitude toward her from my well-meaning mom. Thankfully, I don’t think it got to an offensive level.
In college, we went our separate ways. It just happened that way. Our conversations had never gotten very deep, and she went in a different direction after high school.
She went to college with a special program because of her skin color. I was just glad we were both able to go to college (we goofed around in class a lot!). But I didn’t realize there was so much controversy over this thing called “affirmative action”. Later, I would find myself questioning whether or not this was more helpful or harmful as a policy.
My freshman year, I had a roommate, Renee* (name also changed). She was white – as white as can be – with strawberry-blonde curls. She enjoyed black culture and listened to a lot of R+B and hip hop. Our college had a good population of black students. Since Renee was an extrovert, I tagged along with her and she let me. We joined the Angels of Harmony gospel choir. I absolutely loved it – so much fun. We both sang alto.
While the choir was over half black, the rest of us were different “colors” – white, Asian, Hispanic. (Sorry if I’m not being politically correct. I don’t know what the currently acceptable PC terms are for people’s skin colors). We all sang beautifully together. We’d all get in our gowns, load up a bus and go sing at churches nearby. Some were in Philly. (I went to college in the Philly suburbs). We’d have our concert, listen to the preacher, have “rapture practice” (good fun and keeps you awake during long sermons) and – my favorite part, haha – the soul food buffets. So, so, so good. Fried chicken, greens, mac and cheese, cheesy poppers, watermelon, cornbread… Sweet iced tea… We had a good time! It was only when we were referred to as a “salt and pepper” gospel choir that our skin color seemed to matter.
I loved my friends – all of my friends – in college. It was a Christian college and we were all there to serve Jesus and each other. We had good conversations. The “Multicultural Advisory Committee” (MAC) was another extracurricular group with an emphasis on black culture. I remember we (MAC) having an event with a speaker who was so genuine, so passionate and convicting – and it incited a conversation that I wish we were still having today. (In some ways, I suppose we are, or I wouldn’t even be writing this). The speaker was a black man who was chastising black culture for using the “n word”.
It’s important to note that it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. Racism was a real thing. Privilege and disadvantage were real things. (Obviously, they still are. Besides, I only graduated in 2007!) The majority of my black friends and acquaintances didn’t live in on-campus housing, but had to shuttle over from an off-campus dorm at another college, because they were attending via a special program (sound familiar?) called Urban Promise – which dropped their priority status in the housing lottery… So, as in so many other ways, the black students had extra hassle to get to their classes, get meals, stay on schedule, etc. If I forgot something in my dorm room, I could run back and get it. They didn’t have that luxury. If I needed to change clothes or take a shower, no problem. If I felt sick and needed a nap, I had my own bed in my own private room, on campus. Not all of my black friends had these same luxuries.
The student lounge (called the “Eagle’s Nest” our college mascot is an eagle) became the unofficial “black student lounge” – with nowhere else to go, many black students congregated there to nap, eat, study and, naturally, just hang out. They shared a common cultural history – being away from home 24/7 at 18 or 19 years old, who wouldn’t want the comfort of familiarity? I sometimes spent time in this lounge, but I also recognized that this was a de-facto “sacred space” – never officially designated as such, but nonetheless a haven for black students. I was not jealous, but I was respectful. Others were not always so – essentially, for lack of understanding.
I will write more soon, about my adulthood experience with racism and black culture, especially last summer when I was thrown into county prison and had two black cellmates.