My relationship with racism is a complex one. Growing up white in rural Western NC made knowing about race anything but simple. Don’t get me wrong: I love where I am from, but I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the harsh truths about my segregated town along with all its positive qualities.
My earliest memory of racism happened when I was quite young — no more than five. It was summer, and while my parents were at work, my neighbor was charged with babysitting my brother and me. She was a teacher’s assistant at a local elementary school in the black section of town and took me to school with her one day. Why we were at school in the summer I don’t remember. What I do remember is being outside in front of the school, playing a game where all of us kids were standing in a circle holding hands. As I took the hand of the little girl beside me, my neighbor jerked my hand away and fiercely whispered, “Don’t touch her! She’s dirty!” I looked at my neighbor like she had three heads because my mama had taught me not to get dirty. “She’s not dirty,” I insisted as I stared at my neighbor, who made me stand in a different place in the circle. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized my neighbor had not wanted me to hold the hand of a black child.
I would like to say that experience with racism is the only one I had growing up, but that would be a lie. When I was perhaps seven or eight, a different neighbor took her daughter and me to her church’s Vacation Bible School. I remember her reprimanding me and telling me I shouldn’t play with two black boys I met the first night. I didn’t understand… just like I didn’t understand when my mama took me shopping one day and wouldn’t let me have the black baby doll I thought was so beautiful. She insisted on buying me a white baby doll with blond hair that I didn’t think was even mildly attractive.
The Confederate flag was a common sight throughout the South: on t-shirts, beach towels, license plates, even on the car in the Friday night TV show we watched religiously. People from my town were proud to be from the South and even more proud to have the flag emblazoned on everything. They believed the flag was part of their Southern heritage rather than a symbol of hate.
I frequently heard racist jokes and epithets, the “n-” word and other colorful euphemisms. The black community in town was not called by its rightful name, Freedtown; it was called “N-town.” Brazil nuts were called “n-toes.” And in 7th grade my science teacher once asked me how far I had to chase a “n-” for the bright pink LA Gear sneakers I was wearing. Somehow I knew that the “n-word” was wrong, and if I had asked anyone close to me if it was ever acceptable to call someone that name, I would have been told no. Yet I heard it. Not every day but enough to make me wonder why so many people were using it if we weren’t supposed to.
I grew up being taught, albeit indirectly, that black people were lazy and took advantage of the welfare system. (Now that I am better educated, when I consider the fact that the white population in my county in 1980 was around 90% and the median home value was less than $31,000, I find it much more likely that our white residents were receiving public assistance.)
Black people were dangerous, and black men secretly dreamed of being with white women. In high school my cousin was practically ostracized from the family because she dated a black guy from the other side of town. As it turned out, he was a pretty shady fellow, but his poor life choices were not the main source of concern; his skin color was the real problem.
On Sundays I attended an all-white church and had Bibles with pictures of white Jesus. From the pulpit, my pastor decreed that God is love and created “man” in His image while also teaching that “mixing races” was a sin. Try as I might, I never did find the Biblical scripture that outlawed interracial relationships. I spent much of my youth conflicted over the discrepancy between “loving thy neighbor” and simultaneously assuming superiority over anyone black.
Lest I portray myself as woke and free of racist complicity, let me just say that every part of my being was shaped by being white and being around only white people. I never interacted with black people and didn’t go to school with anyone who was not white until high school, where we had a grand total of five black students in the entire school. I never had a black teacher, even in college. I read books with white characters, watched movies and TV shows with all-white casts, and saw only white people portrayed in a positive light on the nightly news. Because of all this whiteness, as I got older, I developed a skewed view of society and most definitely prejudiced ideas about the black community.
In rural NC Jesse Helms was regarded as a hero if not demigod, and for thirty years of my life, he reigned supreme in our General Assembly. I am ashamed to say that I once voted for Helms in college. That was the year he ran against Harvey Gantt, the black mayor of Charlotte. Rather than do the requisite political research of a responsible citizen, I listened to derogatory comments about Gantt and helped elect someone who openly opposed social and racial equity. Little did I know it would take twenty-six more years before I would realize the sundry ways I had contributed to white supremacy in the span of my lifetime.
If you had asked me just a few months ago to define a white supremacist, I would have described the white hooded figures who marched through the streets of my college town in the early 90s — on Easter Sunday no less. Or I would have conjured images of skinheads, neo-Nazi types who brazenly commit violent crimes against persons of color. Until recently, I associated white supremacist with someone who manifests hatred of any non-white inidividual in obvious, tangible ways, such as Dylan Roof’s mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC in 2015. But the term encompasses so much more than spewing hate-filled language or physically harming innocent people because of their race.
White supremacy also refers to a racial hierarchy where power of any kind lies with the white race. To cultivate this power requires very little effort on the part of a white person. In fact, white people continue to hold this power not only by actively participating in racist behavior; we also hold this power by doing nothing at all. How can that be? Professor, author, and race scholar Ibram X. Kendi writes that the concept of being not racist doesn’t exist. People are either racist or antiracist in their thoughts, comments, beliefs, and actions, and no person is always one or the other. We move along a kind of invisible continuum and might be more racist or antiracist depending on the moment. And oftentimes in our misguided understanding of race, we white people do as much damage as those who are wielding white robes and swastikas simply because of the sheer number of us.
Knowing that my upbringing involved racist ideology I did not accept, I carried with me at all times the fallacy that I was not racist. I condemned those who used racial epithets. I went out of my way to be friendly to black and brown individuals, as if I were extending some kind of gift to them. I prided myself on being “colorblind,” saying race didn’t matter, and fervently teaching texts in my high school English classroom that denounced racism and railed against slavery, lynchings, and denial of basic civil rights, all while committing innumerable microaggressions weekly, if not daily. How many students did I exclude in my ignorance and lack of initiative to learn the truth? Too many for me to think about without deep remorse.
My first year teaching, my class read the Richard Wright story “Almos’ a Man.” I asked the class to respond to a journal prompt with the white students writing from a black character’s perspective and the black students (I think there were two in the class) writing from a white character’s perspective. One of my black students wrote her journal and in it schooled me very quickly on what a horribly insensitive and inappropriate assignment I had given. I can’t remember her name, but I can still see her face. What confidence and courage she had in reading her journal aloud to the class, telling me in no uncertain terms that she didn’t know what it was like to be white and none of the white students would ever know what it was like to be black. Of course, she was right, and what could I do but thank her for her honesty?
At a former school, I served on the committee to select students for acceptance into the National Honor Society. One black student added a note to his application, expressing some concern that he had recently had a run-in with the local police. I thoughtlessly stated that the police would not have bothered him unless he had done something wrong and that he was probably trying to make excuses for his indiscretion. For the most part, white people don’t get stopped by the police for no reason, so that’s the perspective I was bringing to the table. A black teacher, also on the committee, proceeded to tell me how wrong I was and gave me a history lesson of how often black individuals are harassed by police or suspected of something criminal when in reality they are minding their own business. I’m grateful she took the time to instruct me rather than dismissing me as someone who would never change.
Anytime my classes read To Kill a Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men, I read aloud to my students, saying the “n-” word each time it appeared. I actually believed it was perfectly acceptable to do so because I told myself the word lent authenticity to the novels. One year I even found a 60 Minutes clip of an interview with a black professor from a university in Washington state who supported white teachers and anyone else using the word. (Side note: Why are white people often compelled to search out the few rogue black people who support our racist beliefs and practices?) A black student in my class that year asked me after watching this clip if I thought I was racist or had ever been racist, and I had the audacity to say no. I said the well-worn sentence, “I’m not racist and have never been racist.” Shockingly, he didn’t believe me.
From 2012-2015, I witnessed the untimely deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray. Of course, there were many others, but those names caught my attention. While I heard snippets of their stories on the nightly news, my mind (molded by white ideologies) told me each one of them must have done something wrong for the police to target them. I focused on the fact that Trayvon had marijuana in his system the night he was shot, as if that mattered, as if that gave George Zimmerman the right to “defend” himself. I focused on Eric Garner’s and Freddie Gray’s arrest records, as if that gave police permission and authority to kill them. I focused on the chaos that erupted in Baltimore right after Gray’s death and praised the mayor of Baltimore for issuing a citywide curfew and calling the protestors “thugs.” Not once did I question the police. Not once did I see the pattern of racial profiling and police brutality. Not once did I step outside my white self and learn about the history of racism within the criminal justice system.
Out of shame, I won’t recount all the other times my racist tendencies surfaced. My racism was unintentional, but the hurt it no doubt caused was very real. At any rate, there are too many incidents to name, but I will say the summer of 2016 was a turning point for me. That summer was a memorable one and not the kind of memorable that breeds nostalgia. On July 5, Alton Sterling was shot 6 times in the chest at close range and killed outside a Baton Rouge convenience store. On July 6, Philando Castile was shot and killed while reaching for his wallet during a traffic stop. On July 7, a sniper shot 11 officers, killing 5, during a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas. And that week on Facebook, my friend Tamara, who is black, posted that she feared for the life of her unborn son. Her post was a punch in the gut, a moment of awakening for me. Prior to that moment, I had the privilege of having sympathy for those who had died while simultaneously imposing my white prejudices on them and then forgetting about them after a few days because their deaths didn’t affect me. But with Tam’s post, I could no longer ignore what was happening. Now it was personal.
My friend was scared, angry, and hurting deeply, and while I didn’t understand her pain, I desperately wanted to comfort her and let her know I would support her. I don’t recall everything she said in her post, but I made sure I listened to her comments, really listened and reflected on what she had to say. I can’t say I understood at the time the long history of systemic racism she was referring to, but something shifted in me and made me begin to question why so many black unarmed men (and women) were dying at the hands of police and vigilante white people.
That year at school I decided to create a real-world project centered around social justice and ask students to develop possible solutions for societal problems they identified. Over the years and with the help of some wonderful colleagues, the project has evolved into a unit on systemic injustice. Through research and talking to local experts about healthcare, education, economic mobility, criminal justice, and environmental contaminants, I am constantly appalled and ashamed at what I discover. Four years later, I am still learning about how our country was built on racism and how those racist structures are still very much embedded in our country’s infrastructure.
So why am I telling my story? Tam and I, along with a friend of ours, have started a social initiative called Change the Head, Change the Heart. The name was Tam’s idea, and what a brilliant idea it was. Our goal, she explained to me the first time she told me, is to educate others about systemic racism and injustice. If we can teach people about the history of racism in this country and show them a 400-year foundation of racist structures, we might be able to bring about a change of heart for them, enough for them to advocate for true reform that promotes equity rather than oppression. It happened for me; why not for others? When you finally know deep down in your core that the concept of race was man-made and created solely to give power to white people, and allow them to stay in power, you can no longer turn a blind eye to the injustice around you.
I, for one, have lifted the metaphorical blinders from my eyes. Now that I know what I am looking for, I see racial injustice everywhere. It’s not always overt like what I witnessed growing up (although in recent years we have seen a brazen resurgence), but the reluctance to acknowledge that every citizen must take an active role in eradicating this behemoth that looms over and crushes our brothers and sisters of color is unconscionable. We must educate ourselves and speak out against wrong. We must make peace with the fact that if we are not fighting against injustice, we are silently advocating for it. I must continue to educate and check myself in my thoughts and actions to ensure I am being the best ally I can be. I am not where I need to be in this transformation journey, but for once I feel I am on my way. Won’t you join me?