I grew up in a small town that had exactly two black kids in my graduating class — one girl, one boy. My racism for the most part was one of ignorance and fear, more than malice. That’s not to say racism isn’t malicious; it is. But my intent was not. I never wanted to do anyone harm, and I would like to think that I would have stepped in if I’d ever seen actual harassment of a black person based on their race. I’d like to think that — but I can’t be sure.
If anything, the conditioned fear I had went so far as to inhibit me from saying “black” in the presence of a black person. I was hyper-vigilant to not speak of anything that might indicate I’d noticed race. I went out of my way to be “color-blind”. Still, a white defensiveness arose in me any time my status quo was threatened — when the news started covering affirmative action, for example, a part of me wanted to rise up and say, That’s not fair!
Hypothetically, racism always pissed me off, hurt my soul, broke my heart. But I have to be honest and say that at this age, I was not ready to recognize or address the ways in which I benefited from white privilege and our racist society.
When I went to college, I had a roommate who was black, bigoted, and most likely a little crazy. She tormented me — really. She would sit on the phone with her friends while I was in the room and tell them all sorts of things that “white people did.” She brought guests into our room late at night, with no regard as to whether I was sleeping or not. She constantly screamed that I didn’t clean the bathroom enough. Note: her idea of “clean enough” was to douse the entire bathroom in bleach three times a day.
It all culminated in a meeting in our RA’s office — he was black, by the way — with our suite mates. In that meeting, when the bathroom issue came up, my roommate (who refused to sit with us) screamed, “Maybe my forefathers had to clean up after your white-ass forefathers, but slavery days are over! You better sleep with one eye open or you are going to find a knife shoved up your white ass!”
By this time, a crowd had gathered outside James’ room, what with all the yelling. She stomped out of the room, screaming, “I hate white people!” in front of about twenty other students. Having just experienced a direct threat on my life, I slept on my suite mate’s floor. A week later, when I was finally able to meet with the dorm director, I was told it was not a racial problem, that I would not be reassigned even after a direct threat on my life, and that if my roommate and I could find someone to switch rooms with, we could. I moved out of the dorms and got my own apartment soon after. At the age of seventeen, I was on my own.
The experience with my roommate brought the latent racism — laced with fear and ignorance — to my shiny, friendly surface. April wasn’t just a bitch. She was that black bitch.
In truth, she was probably ill. I’ve since learned she has been arrested more than once on charges of exploitation, grand theft and forgery, and the records I can find demonstrate a lot of contradictory claims and almost a sense of megalomania. But the experience brought me face to face with some harsh truths that resided in my psyche. And I didn’t like what I was learning about myself.
It was a few years later, when the Rodney King riots consumed our national consciousness, that I began to find — what should I call it? I think it’s appropriate to say healing, because I do think inherent racism is a festering wound. Still, it’s so embedded within the white collective psyche of this country, I’m not sure that we can ever be truly healed. We can, however, be aware. Be awake. So let’s call it that — I began to find my awakening.
I had since started a tenuous, newborn relationship with Jesus, and I sought out the wisdom of two pastors — one white, one black. They were both on the national stage, commentators on the talking head shows that dominated the airwaves in those days, and they both seemed to take a careful, moderate approach that called for peace, understanding, and reconciliation. I wrote to them; they both wrote back, encouraging patience, understanding, and learning. They encouraged me to seek Jesus.
And thus began my journey to uncovering my racism.
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