So I Looked Him In The Eye

White people, you have heard it said that you must talk to other white people about racism, and you must. But don’t talk to them about their racism. Talk to them about YOUR racism. Talk to them about how you were socialized to view, talk to, and engage with people of color. Talk to them about the ways you’ve acted on that socialization. Talk to them about the lies you bought into. Talk about the struggles you continue to have in shedding the scales from your eyes. Don’t make it “their” problem. Understand it as your own problem, because it is. To not do this would put you in danger of being yet another well-intentioned racist, convinced of their own goodness and living a life wholly unexamined and unaccountable to anyone. We don’t need any more of those. It’s confession time.

Tawnya Denise Anderson

wonder years

I remember exactly when and where I was when I first heard the slur ‘n****r.’

I was sitting on my parents’ old blue-and-white gingham couch, watching The Wonder Years. My parents were gone and my sister and I were home with a babysitter. The living room windows were open and as the show’s theme song began, I heard the babysitter say from his spot on the back porch:

“Turn off that damn n****r music.”

I looked at my sister. She stared back at me. After a moment, she grabbed the remote and switched to The Andy Griffith Show.

When my parents returned, I asked my mother about the word. She stopped what she was doing and looked at me in astonishment.

“Where on earth did you hear that?”

I told her. Her face reddened in anger and she pulled me into a hug.

“Don’t ever, ever use that word,” she said. “I’m sorry you heard it.”

I nodded into her shoulder and never did.

I used to despise it when people talked about privilege. I always liked to think that I wasn’t privileged. After all, I’m an introverted woman who’s been sexually harassed and so poor I had to depend on charity at certain times in my life.

But I once took an online quiz on it and it told me I was 51% privileged. “Check yourself!” said the results screen, and I felt slighted because it was telling me I was one of the bad guys by 1%.

Now, however, if I’m really honest with myself, I think the privileges I had are what have made me into who I am now. Yes, I’m smart and hard-working, but my childhood was full of love and books and extra curriculars and home-cooked food. I breathed clean air when I played outside and the night sky through my bedroom window was full of more stars than most people see in a lifetime. I saw girls like me in the books I read and people like me in the TV shows I watched. My native language is the one taught to children everywhere in order that they might be more successful later in life.

If I wanted to travel abroad now, I could, with very little difficulty. I have a college degree (for which I, yes, worked hard, but also received on a full-tuition scholarship) and a full time job and supportive family and friends and a growing savings account and no disabilities and a beautiful new house in a safe neighborhood and I’m a natural-born citizen of one of the richest and freest countries in the world and, and, and…

And now 51% seems too low to be accurate.

The man – the babysitter who never babysat for us again – was an elder in his church. Once, when I went to his house, I saw that he had hung one of those free church calendars on his wall. The picture that month was of a Sunday dinner being shared by a family of color.

Their faces were colored in with Sharpie. Black boxes, blotting out black faces.

Years later, when I told another elder of his church about the man’s blatant racism, the elder became defensive.

“Well, I guarantee no one knew that he was like that,” he said, but the babysitter continued to be a leader in that church even afterward.

I used to think badly of that church, and by extension, the elder I told. How could they allow someone like that to continue to be a leader in their congregation, after his racism was known?

But now I think – how could I?

In the last few years, I’ve only gotten pulled over a few times: once because I was speeding, once because I had a headlight out, and once because I fit the description of a kidnapper.

I stepped out of my car when the officer asked me to. I was on the shoulder of a busy freeway with my hands on the hood when I suddenly remembered I had the right to ask if he had a search warrant.

But I didn’t.

He asked me to open the trunk of my car.

And I did.

He let me get back on the road once he had seen my trunk was full of Vacation Bible School supplies and Goldfish crackers rather than a stolen child. I don’t want to make things simplistic and say that if I were a black woman, the interaction would have gone differently. But I will say that when my godfather (an upstanding and experienced police detective) heard about this, he was aghast. He scolded me for not insisting on my rights; for not waiting to exit the car until another officer arrived on the scene so there would be a witness, just in case.

I want everyone to have the freedom and courage to insist on those rights.

And I think it’s plain that not everyone does.

One time, very early in the morning when I was opening the coffee shop in which I worked, I realized I was the only white person there.

My black co-workers were friends of mine – lovely, funny people who geeked out over Doctor Who with me and made me free lattes with extra shots even when I wasn’t working.

I felt a strange thing in the pit of my stomach as I looked at them. Was this a familiar sensation for them – this emotion of not-afraid-but-kind-of-nervous-and-alone?

It made me feel on edge and ashamed at the same time.

I loved running in my neighborhood in St. Louis. It was full of classic brownstones, picturesque parks, Catholic churches, classically-designed universities, and autumn trees that looked like frozen fireworks.

St. Louis is also one of the most dangerous cities in the United States, so I always remained alert. My neighborhood wasn’t immune to crime and we were also situated next to a hospital whose sidewalks played host to more than a few homeless people.

Once, as I ran by the emergency room entrance, a black man smoking a cigarette on the sidewalk yelled something at me. I didn’t hear what he said, exactly, but it scared me and I ran faster, deciding to take a different street home so I wouldn’t have to pass him again.

As I turned the final corner onto my street at the end of my run, however, I saw that he had left the hospital and was now strolling down the sidewalk toward me. I paused, pulled my earbuds out so that I could hear clearly, and unlocked my phone so I could call 911 if necessary. I tried to walk past him without looking at him, but something made me change my mind at the last second.

So I looked him in the eye.

“Way to get it done, sis!” he said, grinning, and gave me a high five.

I went into my apartment, sat on the couch, and cried.

I know I had more reason to be afraid of the man than just the fact that he was black. He could have attacked me no matter what color his skin was.

But I knew, deep down, that all the other reasons weren’t what made me afraid.

Speaking of fear – I’m terrified of posting this.

On one hand, I don’t want to be seen as racist.

And on the other, I don’t want to be seen as anti-police.

What I want to be seen as is someone who works to overcome her initial, internalized racist reactions. I want to be known as a person who greets and treats everyone as Jesus would. I want to tangibly stand for the rights of the mistreated and abused, and I want to tangibly stand for the safety of the men and women who patrol our neighborhoods and schools.

And if these confessions can do anything to help those causes, then with God’s help, I will make them.

By the way, the theme song for The Wonder Years is a cover of a Beatles song, sung by a white guy.

So there’s that.

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  • Reply Patricia Willoughby July 15, 2016 at 10:16 am

    Hi Chelsey,
    What courage it took to write and yet, post this. I am right with you. I am glad to know that your parents discouraged you from using that ugly word. I unfortunately heard from someone in my family when I was growing up and I grew to dislike and so I didn’t. Thank you for your honesty and transparency.

    • Reply Chelsey August 1, 2016 at 11:53 am

      Thank you for reading, Patricia!

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