At my son’s former elementary school, like at many schools, popularity was illustrated by at which table you sat during lunch. My son sat at the table of the “cool” boys – deemed “cool” because they were the best at some of the recess games. As sitting at this table was a status symbol, no one ever sat comfortably at the table — because sitting there was so important (in their little worlds) that they squeezed in so tightly into overcapacity so they could be “in” (figuratively and literally). One day one of the boys was bragging about his upcoming birthday party, when he looks at my son (the only Black kid at the table) and says, “You can’t come, Evan because you are Black.” My son, calm unlike his mother, shrugged to indicate that he could care less about attending that party.
Later he told me, that he genuinely was unfazed about not being invited to the party; but hated being “called out” in front of his friends. I, of course, contacted the school and ensured that the kid was punished. The school and a couple of mothers let me know that the mother of the boy wanted to talk to me. I refused.
My reasoning was that if the mother and I had a conversation; only she would end up feeling better at the end of it. I knew what she desired, for her conscience and reputation (the White people in my county—all of whom pay dearly not to live near any diversity—pride themselves on being liberal and accepting, so having the reputation of a racist would not be cool). I knew that she would apologize; but then create an excuse for what her son said (“I don’t know why he said that. It’s so unlike him. He’s a loving boy. Did you know his kindergarten teacher was Black? —blah blah, blah”). And I knew that she would guarantee me that she, nor her family is racist. I knew that my job, as a good Black person, was to make her feel better about herself and her son. I didn’t feel like it. I only felt like and focused on making my son feel better.
Another time, my husband and I were attending a school fundraiser. We always went to these functions to send the message, “We are educated, involved, and caring Black parents. Do not think you can screw over our kids in this 99% White environment and get away with it.” We were at a table eating, drinking wine, doing our “delightful Black couple” act when a woman says something akin to, “Randi, I see you over there rolling your neck. Don’t get upset.” Huh? I don’t roll my neck. I’ve never rolled my neck—this movement is not in my body language toolbox. This woman obviously was viewing me through her lens clouded with stereotypes, I reasoned; so, two days later, I sat outside of a coffee shop and explained why what she said was wrong, hurtful, and narrow-minded. She, provided her Black resume (the things White people tell you to prove that it’s impossible for them to be racist) and gave an apology that I felt was sincere.
I handled the two situations differently; I’ve flip flopped with each situation throughout my life. My instinct is to shut people out once they show me that they are bigots. I am confused when White people say that they didn’t mean any offense, or they didn’t mean to be racist, or they truly didn’t mean to harm anyone. If what you said isn’t who you are or who your family member is, then why was it said—particularly unconsciously? The reason that we never hear of Black stars, politicians, parents, or kids at school calling another person “cracker” is because it’s not typically a part of our vocabulary. When my oldest son was called “Nigger” by a classmate, and when my friend’s children have experienced the same; the parents have always said that they aren’t racist and that type of language isn’t used inside of their homes. But it is—it must be. An elementary school aged child is going to reflect exactly what’s going on in their home. So why should I invest my time with someone who most likely has their own race issues – likely generational. I can’t change a person. I won’t suddenly make a racist person become accepting and loving, so I usually don’t waste my time. I thank the universe for the lesson, for revealing who they are and then stay away from them (and suggest that they stay away from me and my family).
On the other hand, I have been a diversity trainer for companies for years. I am also compelled to believe in the goodness of people and to educate them to do better. Can we inform others so that at least when they apologize; they understand fully the reason for their apology? Can we create enough empathy that when someone apologizes for bigoted behavior; they are doing so because they can appreciate the pain they caused and not because they want to ensure that their reputations aren’t injured? How can we possibly change as a country, if we don’t talk to one another and learn from one another? Many days, I see the turmoil that our country is in as an opportunity to finally have honest and raw conversations about race. The Band-Aid has been ripped off and we are bleeding; perhaps it’s the time that the bravest of us begin the delicate work of stitching.
As I have listened to what seems to be daily public apologies from politicians, NFL owners, marketing firms and corporations for racists statements or commercials, I’ve concluded that the bravest thing a White person can do when they say or do something racist is simply to own it. That’s terrifying for most people. One of the primary reasons people are upset about the kneeling protest is that it is attempting to force them to confront America’s racist society. They want to keep saying that it’s about the flag because that’s easier than dealing with the real issue: the killing of Black men by law enforcement. Not until they own it, can their apology be valid. They must put in the work first; and then they must apologize.
And then what Black people must do, is listen. We must consider. And the ultimate act of bravery would be to forgive. Forgiving is scary because it means that we must let go of some anger, shed some of those protective layers, and allow ourselves to trust those people and a country that has hurt us severely.
We’ve all got to deal with the root of the pain—not with the daily symptoms—to at least move from open, bleeding wounds to scars that perhaps will fade over time.