I should preface this post because this is one of those taboo topics (although, I believe there needs to be open conversation) and I’m bound to get slammed one way or the other because of it, but I’m willing to put myself out there to speak out.
I’m a white woman who grew up in Northeastern America close to where the English settlers took over the land. The area I grew up in was mixed with many races of people who came to stay for the work in the nearby mills (paper and fabric being the predominant in the area). It expanded over time to include other nationalities and “Anglo-Saxon white”, by the time I was in school, was closer to the minority in the area than other nationalities. I never really noticed the skin color differences of my peers. To this day, I’m not sure of the actual heritage of some of my friends I grew up with. It just never occurred to me to ask and it never troubled me that their skin was more pigmented than mine (except when we returned from summer break and they had better tans and I was jealous). All I knew was that we were different, but I knew the same of my siblings and we had the same parents. So it never really occurred to me that “different” was a negative to many people… until I moved to the South.
I remember when the “politically correct” terminology was being bounced around. I honestly thought it was odd. I was extremely confused. Was I to start calling my black friends “African American”? How would I approach this? Would they be offended if I didn’t call them “African American”? I thought, “Not all dark pigmented Americans are from Africa. Isn’t it more racist of me to assume that because someone has dark skin pigment s/he is from Africa? Are ‘African Americans’ now supposed to be politically correct in calling those with less pigmented skin ‘Irish American’ or ‘Italian American’ or ‘German American’ or Russian American’, etc? How asinine can these ‘politically correct’ people be to just assume that dark pigment means African? Why do I need to follow that ignorance?”
It was only after moving to the South that my naivety to racism became apparent. It is like a Twilight Zone! Racism still exists and it is a very scary sight! I don’t like ignorance, but I really felt ignorant to the severity of racism in the South that still exists.
During my first college semester I met a man who is a Vietnam veteran. The Vietnam war was brutal and anyone who has dug into that particular war could see that it was devastating. It’s my personal opinion that it was an excuse for the government to get rid of what the government saw as “expendable” people. (That’s a much bigger topic for another day.) It was the first day of our sociology class, and we were to choose a person to interview to present their story to the class. I could have picked the girl next to me or behind me, but I chose this man who had a certain calm to his demeanor. He was much older than I, but that wisdom is something I was drawn to. He had a few children and surprisingly one close in age to one of my own. He smiled with my shock and awe at his children’s ages and we learned each others’ stories to present to the class. His story stuck with me, though, when he shared something I could see was a deep wound—he hadn’t shared anything from his time in Vietnam with his children. I told him I thought that he should even if it was painful.
I became his “class buddy” so if he had to miss a class, I would give him the class notes and information he needed. We spoke often during our break times and I loved listening to his point of view during our class discussions. A couple weeks into the class, he told me he would be absent because he needed to go to court to fight a ticket. Naively, I joked, “You need to lay off the gas pedal!” But it wasn’t a speeding ticket like I thought. He got arrested for “walking on the wrong side of the road” (on the sidewalk with another sidewalk on the opposite side of the road in a rather populated city). When the officer was arresting him, he asked politely, “What is this for?” This question got this man a second charge for resisting arrest. I was dumbfounded. This man (in his 50’s?), a Vietnam vet with no criminal record is arrested for walking on the wrong side of the road. Did I mention that my friend is black and was arrested in the same city that Trayvon Martin was murdered because of his skin color and his killer escaped charges because the racist county didn’t fight for the victim because of his skin color? I was both horrified and disgusted. I couldn’t believe how calm he was about it. I remained enraged FOR him.
During the hearing, the DA offered my friend a “deal”— 1 year in the County Jail. No joke. A year. I was speechless (which is rare for me). I still have a hard time wrapping my brain around the whole thing. He didn’t take the “deal”. I told him I wanted to go to the news with his story. He didn’t want me to and was afraid that drawing attention to his case would get him in more trouble. What a horrible feeling that must be! He seemed like he was already defeated and if he just kept his head down, he would come out only slightly scathed. I respected his request to keep quiet, but it hasn’t left my mind. I’m bothered by accepting that as his fate. I refuse to accept it as the fate for his children and my children.
I explained to him how naive to the existance of rascism I was. I felt the need to apologize to him for his experiences of oppressiveness from those with similar skin color as my own. It’s just wrong. It’s wrong to treat any human being as less than a human being because they are different than ourselves. Every human is different from one person to the next. We need to start teaching acceptance rather than tolerance. Tolerance points out the differences negatively. Tolerance is a sting, but acceptance is warming to the soul.