One of my earliest memories is during my second birthday party, cowering in a small hallway with a handful of two and three year olds because there were black men in cars driving by, drilling semi-automatic bullets into the walls of the apartment buildings. In the same apartment complex, I remember a little black girl telling me she couldn’t play with me because I was white. I remember that same little girl’s father standing in my father’s face with a broken beer bottle, threatening his life.
When I was six, one of my first school friends I brought home for a sleepover was a black girl. She walked through the doors of my house and was pleasantly greeted by my half Chow, half Rottweiler dog Data. Her response—hysterically screaming. That whole night my parents had to move Data from inside to outside to outside to inside, depending on where this little girl wanted to play. After she left the next day, the tension said, “that’s what you get when you invite a black girl into the house. Black people are afraid of dogs.” That same black girl became my first bully, calling me names, pulling my hair, and throwing my school supplies out of my arms whenever I would get off the bus. I learned that people different from you will hurt you, despite your kindness to them.
From age six through about ten, I grew up playing with children whose skin color matched my own. In fact, I didn’t bring another black person home until I invited a friend from church to my mother’s thanksgiving dinner when I was 26 years old. In between those 20 years, I continued to hear my dad say, “don’t bring home a black man.” My mom would tell me that black men were attracted to big white girls because they didn’t have to worry about the controlling and ghetto attitude from me as they would receive from a black woman.
These experiences and words continued to raise the contrasting levels between my skin tone and the skin tone of others around me, manifesting itself in internal judgement and prejudice, as well as overflowing into my speech. In middle school a black boy continuously kicked me in the side until I fell out of the school bus seat we had to share. I preceded to gouge my nails into his leg and drag down. The fact that he bled the same red that I bleed, did not stop me from calling him nigger. I was taught to believe that nigger was a title earned by a black person. Not all black people were niggers. It was title given to the black person who felt entitled to special treatment because of the color of their skin. To me, that black person was a nigger.
I did not think myself as racist though. I was progressive and believed the violent acts unjustly committed against a black person just because of their skin color were atrocious. I believed that everyone was deserving of the same fair and just treatment in our country. I watched movies about our great civil rights leaders and freedom fighters, and I was embarrassed. Not because I found myself confronted with my own racist tendencies, but because my ancestors had done these horrible acts against the black race. I believed that the guilt I felt, atoned my predecessors and myself of any hate and wrongful acts that we had done to the black person and would do in the future.
While that guilt sprouted in the dirt of naivety, it continued to be watered and tended by the love and grace of God. I was not aware of any of this though. My perspective was still selfish and tainted by my glasses that made everything whiter. I believed I would go to Africa someday on a mission trip and make a difference for the black natives. I knew that my future included adopting a little black baby from a poor African orphanage. I would colonize that baby to my white family and friends, and make his or her life so much better. I was not racist because, I wanted to learn about the culture of my black counterparts while in school. I would ask questions about their families, food, and speech. I would ask their opinions concerning civil rights injustices. I was open to learning, so therefore I was not racist.
I was not racist because no one had ever called me a racist. At least not yet. Eventually it did happen though. It was bound to happen because the truth is always revealed. One summer I worked for a high school education program serving a population of predominately low-economic minorities. I was so proud of myself, I was overcoming the prejudices of my parents and helping to further the social and educational justices of the black community. My black girls and boys that I tutored were a testament to my progressiveness. At the end of that summer I received my evaluations back from the students. One of them read, “She be racist.” I remember the sick feeling I had in my stomach; my blood boiled in righteous indignation.
It sparked an essay for one my English courses—an essay I title Reverse Racism. I reverted back to my mentality of nigger is a title earned by the entitled black person. This time I was more politically correct. I argued that the expectation from the black youth to automatically receive special treatment from our schools and justice systems was undermining to the very thing that their ancestors fought against in the civil war and civil rights movement. I argued that their ancestors fought for equal rights, not extra rights, so by calling teachers racist because they disciplined them was undoing the civil rights earned. I believed that their ancestors laid out a pathway that allowed them to be able to earn their right to fairness just like everyone else.
Fast forward nearly eight years later, and I’m sitting on the patio of a crowded Memphis coffee shop with a friend. A couple of middle school aged black boys approach us with a basketball tournament flier, asking us for money to sponsor them. My friend and I politely decline. There is a middle aged white man at the table next to us. The boys approach him and the white man yells at the boys, telling them to “scram” and “shoo” like he was talking to a pair of stray dogs. The white man stands up and begins to chase them across the lawn and off the property. The rest of the people on the patio were shocked or confused, some of them praising the white man and others were pretending like they didn’t notice a thing. My friend begins to wail in compassion for the boys. Me—I continue to sit there, embarrassed.
I came to Memphis to hear Trevor Noah speak. I wanted to hear Trevor because I read his memoir Born a Crime and because of the civil unrest our country is currently experiencing. I’ve watched the news stories about Philando Castile. I saw the dash cam as he was brutally shot down in his car, in front of his daughter, after doing and saying everything right. I’ve seen the coverage on other black men unjustly handled and some killed by our police, and how our judicial system has not stood up for their rights. I’ve heard the repetitive hate speech slung around by white supremacists in Charlottesville. I’m witnessing the continued division of our country under our current administration and the uproar catalyzed by the kneeling of our NFL athletes. But before that coffee shop in Memphis, I’ve never properly saw racism for what it is—racism is me. Trevor Noah, told a story during his show about how his mother taught him how to handle racism. She said, “Trevor, you take their hatred and you mix it in with the love of Jesus and then push it back on them.” Trevor said that we can’t give a racist the satisfaction of knowing that they hurt them. As those boys ran off the lawn, they laughed. At the age of 12, probably even younger, they were already practicing the words that Trevor Noah shared with us.
Me-I continued to sit there, embarrassed. I was embarrassed because my friend was making more of a scene. I was embarrassed because despite how enraged and sick I was by what I had just witnessed, I could not make myself speak out against the injustice. I was frozen by my own racism. By the realization that I am a racist. This is my confession as a racist, and I pray that the Lord continue to stir up his love in my heart, that someday, I too can throw it out to the world with the same amount of compassion and love that my friend did.