When I lived in Atchison, KS, my younger brother by nine years came to move in with me in order to finish high school. The very first piece of advice I heard? “Keep him away from the black kids.” When Chuck started school? He found every single student of color he could find and brought them to the house!
What they didn’t understand about me and my brother was that we’d been friends with more than a few people of color as we grew up. I thought that meant I understood them, that I “got” them. I didn’t. Not really. And I know that I still don’t, but I will never pretend to.
Let me explain. When I was in St. Louis, MO for a conference in college, my friend and I thought it would be wise to locate the building we’d need to find in the morning. So we took off, just a couple of white girls driving down the street, enjoying the opportunity to be away from classes for a few days. Everywhere I looked there were White Castle restaurants, which we didn’t have back home. The weather was perfect for leaving the windows down. It was wonderful!
We found the way to the university easily and then tried to find the route back to the hotel. This was a bit more problematic. Not realizing that White Castles were everywhere, we started using them as landmarks, confident that if we saw one, we were on the right track. As dusk set, the landscape began to look different. “Jane” I said, “When we drove to the university, there were white people in the White Castles. Now I only see black people. So either people ate shifts based on your particular shade of skin, or we’re lost.”
Oh, we were definitely lost! It was time to end our tour of St. Louis’s White Castle chain and find our way back to the hotel. As we waited for the light to change at the intersection of 14th Street and Martin Luther King Drive, a black teenager approached the car. Great! We could ask directions, which we got after this young man asked if we wanted to take him and his friend home. My heart absolutely shattered. This kid should have been home studying; instead he was offering himself to anyone who would pay him for the use his body for a price, as if it didn’t belong to him or had no other value.
We got back to the hotel, a little wiser and a lot more disheartened. What could we possibly do about it?
The next morning, I got up early to go to a nearby store to pick up some pantyhose. If the night before hadn’t been enough to unsettle me, my shopping experience sealed the deal.
As I looked for the pantyhose, it slowly occurred to me that there were none called “Nude.” In fact, there were none for a light-complected white girl like me at all.
Curious, I went to the cosmetic aisle. There were absolutely no cosmetics for someone of my color at all. In the hair products I saw products I didn’t even know existed and had no idea what any of them did. It brought to mind the time a friend of mine said she was going to perm her hair later in the evening. I told her the thing I hated most about perms was getting all the curlers in. She patiently reminded me that she didn’ t want or need to make her hair curly; her perm was to straighten her hair. (Here’s your sign!)
I walked outside the store empty handed and realized I hadn’t noticed the billboards. Every single one had attractive black people showing off their product. Not a single white person to be seen. No one who looked like me, outside a store that didn’t have me in mind when they ordered inventory. A strange and uncomfortable thought came to me: I had a right to be able to buy what I want when I want it! How could anyone not carry the products I needed? I quickly squashed that thought but was ashamed by it.
I have never forgotten the moment when I realized my skin color excluded me from buying what I needed. It was profoundly disconcerting to have people with my skin color unrepresented in the images around me. In fact, as I looked at the people on the sidewalks, I began to search to anyone else who looked like me. I had an unfamiliar desperation to at least see another white person because this very small part of the world did not include me. Not because of any nefarious plan, discrimination or injustice, but simply because of demographics. And that sense of privilege and entitlement I’d felt earlier was a surprisingly ugly thought that simply came because I had never had what I needed or wanted unavailable to me.
I’ve had years to think on that snapshot of my life experiences. I look around and see white people in television and movies. Santa is white. Jesus is white (though I’m pretty sure that’s not accurate!). I see white people in political offices and upper management. It’s all very comfortable for a white girl like me to see the world when it reflects my ethnicity, my experience, my goals and dreams.
See, a lot of white women my age have grown up playing with the same toys, had the same celebrity crushes, the same encouragement and opportunities. We understand each other because we “know” each other. But we aren’t educated in what black women our age experience. We don’t “know” them as well.
While we can and should respect their experience, we simply don’t understand what doesn’t reflect ourselves. I don’t think it’s because we don’t want to! We just don’t know how to educate ourselves. I know that in the wake of George Floyd’s death, people have shared book and video titles that would help. But those books and videos only provide knowledge, which is a good start. It would take relationships to gain wisdom and understanding. It will take a lot more for us to understand how it feels to have people not look us in the eye as they pass by because we’re darker. To have someone hold their purse a little tighter because we’re darker. To be seen as someone to be afraid of or suspicious of because we’re black.
And when we watch the protests on television, we understand how senseless, destructive and quite frankly wrong they choose to be heard is. But I think we need to consider that, like so many other minorities, they don’t have a voice and they have no leadership like they did in Martin Luther King, Jr. And when you can’t speak, you scream. When there is no platform on which to build, you destroy. You take the only options and tools available and demand to be seen.
This is the same frustration that has lead to #metoo movements and #blacklivesmatter, etc People just want to be seen and treated with some respect and dignity. They want boundaries for themselves that are honored. And it can start very simply in the small details. When someone says “Stop” just stop. When a tall black man of substantial and imposing height walks by you, just flash a quick smile to him like you would to anyone else. When someone definitely looks like she’s “not from around here”, just talk to her.
I’ve never been too shy to draw someone into a conversation, and one day I saw a very nice looking black woman sitting at a nearby table, alone. There were no other diners around, so I went over to her and asked her if she was enjoying our town. She told what brought her to New Ulm. I shared some tips and recommendations on how to best enjoy the town.
When we parted, she thanked me for talking to her, telling me that she’d been in town for two days and no one had spoken to her. I assured her that the folks here are cautious with anyone they don’t know. However, I could attest to the fact that you couldn’t find kinder people. It just took some time, but once they warm up to you, they won’t hesitate to tell you about their son’s ex-wife’s hysterectomy!
Just let them talk and then listen to them. Really hear them!
I certainly don’t support the way some protesters are acting. And I’m definitely not an expert on the black experience! But I know what it’s like to not be seen, to not be heard.
In his devotion for today, Rick Warren shared Proverbs 31:8-9 (NIV): “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Besides the black community, we have…
- the poor
- the uneducated
- the handicapped
- the mentally ill
- the babies
- the children
- the geriatric
- the obese
- the single parents
- the nerds
- the homosexuals
- name your own
It’s a long list because there are so many circles to classify ourselves in. But right there in the center of our Venn Diagram, right there in the middle, we find the one thing that we all share. We are all children of a powerful and loving God, who must grieve over he way we treat other children of God. Those of us who know better need to do better when we can.
It’s suffocating to never be heard. And I suppose that’s why George Floyd’s last words will linger for a very long time.