Sunday, August 7, 2016

My Lived Racial Experiences Part 1: Should I Hate White People?

This is a series of posts in which I share my racial experiences as a Black woman  in America. I am an activist and a humanitarian. If I want to make the world a better place, I must begin with me and examine how race shows up in my life. These are my epiphanies.

 In these times of increasing racial tension and social unrest, I've been thinking about my lived racial experiences to see if they warrant me hating White people. I think it's a fair question considering the loathing and terror that people of color, particular African Americans have been subjected to in this country at the hands of White people. We have suffered horrific atrocities from the day we first arrived to the current day. 

I think about the racist rhetoric aimed at the Black Lives Matter Movement in that they have the audacity to demand justice. Equality will not been given without a fight. We’ve seen this movie before. In the words of Frederick Douglass, “Without struggle, there is no progress. As much as people love Dr. King today, he wasn’t always well liked. The struggle for civil rights was met with great resistance because much of America thought that protesters and activists were asking for too much too soon. Not much has changed.

During the peak of the Black Power Movement in the 70s, I was a child. And images of whiteness were replaced by images of blackness, and I responded. Instead of drawing peach colored people with long yellow hair. I drew brown people with gigantic black Afros. My new found cultural awareness must have frightened my older, White second grade teacher because she prohibited me from drawing people with afros anymore. This troubled me, so, I went home and told my mother who sent my sister to school to talk with my teacher. I watched as my teacher folded one of my drawings in half to demonstrate that the afro was as big as the body. She offered a compromise: I could draw brown people with afros if I made the afros smaller. Funny thing is I never remember her telling me that my golden Rapunzel-like hair was too long. 

Fast forward to the following summer when my oldest sister had the bright idea to send her daughter and me to Day Camp. I don't know why. I was perfectly fine running up and down the block with my niece and my friends. But off to camp we went. The two-year age gap between us meant that we were assigned to different groups which were separated by age and gender. My neighborhood was segregated. My school was segregated. The only White people I knew were the old couple who lived next door and the staff at my school. I had never had any interactions with White children. And my first interaction proved to be memorable--and not in a good way.

Living in a Black World, color never mattered until I went to camp. My otherness surfaced feelings of alienation and isolation. In Duck, Duck Goose no matter how many times the girls went around the circle, I was never the goose. In Red Rover, I never heard, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Stephanie on over.” My counselor was no help. Not only were these 9 year-old girls bigots, they were also bullies. I swear, it seemed like they made the spineless counselor cry every day. I had two saving graces. I could braid hair, so my counselor liked for me to pull her long black hair into a braid while the other girls watched in fascination. They still wouldn’t play with me though. And the last part of the day, we were free to go with the other groups, and I defected to the familiarity of my niece’s group. She was there and her counselor was Black. It was home until I could get home.

More than them ignoring me, the thing I most remember about Day Camp is something that still bothers me to this day—not that it happened as much as my reaction to it. One of the girls had some Skittles. We didn’t have Skittles in my neighborhood. We had Starbursts and I liked Starbursts, so I thought I might also enjoy a taste of the rainbow. The blond-haired girl saw me eyeing her candy, smiled and offered me some. I nodded and held out my hand. The smile disappeared just as she smashed up what was left in the package before handing it to me. I can feel the queasiness in my stomach as I write this. I wanted that candy; I wanted to belong, and so I ate it. That is my shame. But from pain come lessons. When those White girls became women, and I met them in grad school, I knew what was behind the manipulative White tears. I watched them say and do mean shit on the down low, and then cry when confronted. I learned not to fall for the okey-doke.

I was supposed to grow up in an integrated world where I was judged by the content of my character, not the color of my skin. I’m a post-civil rights baby much like we are supposed to be living in a post racial America today. Things were supposed to be different then. Things are supposed to be different now. They’re not. 

 I have been discriminated against and stereotyped for none other than the color of my skin. I reflect on the many times I’ve had to face down racial prejudice. When my family left the segregated west side for the integrated south side, my mother was told where my niece and I could not go. A mile east of us past the viaduct was off limits. In high school, I was at Evergreen Plaza Mall when I was accused of shop lifting. My niece and I were taken to a back room and all of our bags were dumped out. We didn’t have any stolen merchandise. There was no apology for the error on their part. 
I remember taking the bus to Ford City and being in the parking lot when a group of White boys zoomed past and nearly hit me. I jumped out of the way, heart racing, legs weak only to see them whiz by me laughing. I remember being the only Black person working for a real estate magazine on Kedzie. It was a small, family owned business a few miles west of my segregated neighborhood. It was a good work experience, but because of their limited interactions with people of my hue, I became the curator of Black culture. I had to answer questions about my hair, food, clothes—you name it. 

The one time I was super irritated was when one of the women corrected my English. She said I said “ax” instead of “ask”. I tried to explain to her that, that was not what I said.  My sister was the Grammar Police and “ask” was at the top of her list of grammatical offenses. I knew how to say “ask” with the “k” sound. This was confirmed when on a previous job, a White woman proclaimed loudly in the cafeteria that I was the only Black person she ever heard say “ask” (hard K.) But I digress.
This 2nd Ax/Ask woman came back to me asked me to be more “pacific” about the notes I made. So, I asKed her, “Do you want me to be more Pacific or Atlantic? Those are the names of oceans. I think the word you’re looking for is ‘specific.’” OMG! She was so pissed; she threw her hands up, said “Whatever!” and walked away—her face blood red. It was okay for her to correct me, but not for me to correct her? I simply laughed and shook my head. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. I enjoyed my time there even though the Black police officer stopped me when I was out to lunch to ask me what I was doing in the area. Racism is systemic folks. It's as natural as the air we breathe.

I can go on and on, but there is no need to replay every negative racial encounter I’ve had. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking, Oh, I’m Black. Let’s see what kind of prejudice I’m going to face today. The reality is it has happened and continues to happen. I accept that I’m going to have to navigate an often times rugged and bumpy terrain as a Black woman because I understand the history of racism in this country.

 I also know that just as I’ve had encounters with prejudice and bigotry that, that is not the sum total of my experience. I liked my second grade teacher despite the incident with the drawings, and my third grade teacher was amazing! I don’t think I even noticed that she was White until I got older and would reflect on the fond memories of my third grade classroom. It was evident that she loved students and teaching. I l adored my high school English teacher, and it was an honor to see her years later as a colleague.

 I'm not going to fall back on the cliché that some of my best friends are White. They’re not. But I did date a White guy and we had a good relationship, but race was a factor in us breaking up.  I do know some cool White people, and we hang out together and have a great time. I have also met some wonderful people online who are comrades in the struggle for equity in this country, and not just for Black people but for all marginalized people. I enjoy conversing with them and learning from them. Just recently I participated in a conversation about race between Black and White women. We didn’t see eye to eye on everything, and that’s ok. We’re still looking for what binds us as opposed to what separates us. We’re going to meet again in September. 

So, to answer the question that I raised: Should I hate White people? No. I don’t want to hate anyone anymore than I want them to hate me. I want to get to know people as people and celebrate our differences as well as find comfort in our similiarites. I believe it takes all kind of people to make the world turn.

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