I’m about to tell on myself in a very big way. Thinking about how I used to think makes me feel sick to my stomach. *cringe* The story I’m about to tell you involves a very prejudice little girl who thought very horrible things. But hang in there, because this is also a love story. How, might you ask? Well let me tell you.
Once upon a time there was a 19 year old girl who could not wait to leave Southern Illinois. That girl was me. I decided that it was time to move to the big city of Evansville Indiana, population 120,000 ish people. That’s probably not a big city to many of you, but for someone whose biggest town was just over 5000 people, it was GIANT. So I packed my bags and left.
Like most white people, I thought I had a good grasp on racial issues. I had seen almost every not-rated R Denzel Washington movie and knew not to ever use the “n” word, though at the time I was of the school of thought that I should be able to use it since black people did. So of course, I was terrified of interacting with black people. Let’s take a look at some of the things I actually thought.
- People should not date outside of their race.
- Only a handful of black people actually made it to college on their own merit. Everyone else was handed an education by the government for no reason.
- Black people automatically hate me.
- If I get hit on by a black guy, he probably wants to rape me.
- Most black people are poor because they are lazy.
- Every black person smokes weed and/or is involved in some form of drug dealing.
- When it comes to racial issues, black people have no objectivity.
- Black people are violent and dangerous.
- There is no such thing as racism anymore.
I could go on, but my heart can’t take it.
I had this vision in my head of the types of experiences I would have: the things I would do, the people I would meet. Much like my entire life, I saw these fantasies in white. In the back of my mind I knew that I would meet people of other races, but I never fathomed that I would be living and working in an area that was primarily made up of minorities.
When I landed my first “big city” job at a large grocery store, I was thrilled to be able to support myself and begin my journey into adulthood. But even my excitement didn’t dispel the fear inside of me when I realized that I was working in a primarily minority-populated area. In addition, it was a low-income area with a reputation for drugs and violence. On the surface, it embodied every stereotype I ever had about both black people and people in poverty.
Then I moved into said neighborhood. I found myself living and working around people that in my mind were foreign and strange. I was awkward and uncomfortable serving black people—afraid that I might fail to learn their convoluted language and find myself in a volatile miscommunication situation. I “knew” that black men preferred white women, so I was afraid that they would wait for me to get off work and gang-rape me. I “knew” that they were all lazy and ignorant, and therefore not to be trusted. I can only imagine how I must have appeared to my coworkers.
But of course, I never once considered that I was wrong. It did not ever occur to me that my lack of experience with non-white people meant that I knew absolutely nothing about them. I continued working with a smile on my face while trying to hide my deep-rooted racism.
Until one day.
I was walking back from break to the service desk and I noticed a police officer escorting a little girl out of the store. I caught a few glimpses of scowling customers and disapproving employees. It was hard for me to reconcile the looks on their faces with the image of this tiny little girl climbing in the back of a police car. When I asked what was going on, I was told that this little girl frequently stole from the store and was finally learning her lesson. I was also told by multiple people that she was a “bad” girl who was always going to be bad and some day land in jail. There were also comments by customers along the lines of, “Maybe this will scare her out of stealing”.
A switch flipped inside of my heart when I looked from this stone-faced child to the bitter expressions of the witnesses. That’s when I saw it.
That poor little girl was not a child to them—she was a small adult. Before that moment I had never seen such expressions cast at a little girl.
I’m going to pause the story for a moment because I know that some of you may be thinking, “but I see impoverished white children get treated this way all the time,” or maybe you are a tough parent who would not hesitate to throw your own child in the back of a police car to teach them a lesson. Maybe you are or have seen a black parent openly support this sort of punishment. Let’s take a moment and imagine that the girl was white. Let’s look at the scenario where she is unaccompanied. What sort of looks would she get from onlookers? Would the majority of people be concerned or would they be scowling? What comments would they make? Would they make more comments about her bleak future or would they hope that she got that help she needed. Do you mention her parents at all and if you do, what would you say? Does a religious figure step in and offer assistance? Do you believe that this child will learn her lesson or do you think that she is what she is no matter what? Think about that. Now let’s pretend you see a parent punishing their child this way. If the girl is five and white are you excited that a parent is taking action or do you cringe at the severity of the punishment? Think about that. Now she’s black again and you see other black people supporting the action taken. Does it make a difference in the actual event? Because some black people are ok with this does that mean it’s ok to treat a five year old girl like a criminal? Think about that.
No imagine this: you are shopping when you notice a child appearing to be around 5 years old walking around by herself. Are you more concerned that this child is stealing or that she is alone in a rough neighborhood? Are you more concerned if she’s white?
I had never felt such anger—anger at the injustice done to this poor child. Shocked and outraged, I said something like, “Guys, that is a child! I mean…she’s a little girl! Did anyone call her parents? Did anyone think that maybe she needs our help?” I think I babbled for a while before one of my supervisors asked me to calm down.
And then I looked around and saw that I was not alone in my outrage—I was just new to it. I had never seen anything like it—or rather I had never noticed it. Many of my coworkers lived it. It was not new to them. They were not surprised, but they were not complacent either.
With open eyes, I began noticing racism all around me. I noticed when a white person called someone the “n” word. I noticed when a child was treated like an adult. I noticed all the inappropriate jokes and gestures—the side-glances and the assumptions. Racism was all around me all along, but I was too hard-hearted to see it.
After that, I spent a great deal of time re-evaluating myself. What used to be normal and acceptable turned into the something ugly. Recognizing the darkness in my soul tore me apart. But during this time of inner struggle, something magical happened.
I met Andrew.
Someday, I’ll tell you our story. I’ll tell you how he was patient with me. I’ll tell you how loving him came naturally. But for now, just know that I love this man with every fiber of my being. And you know what? He loves me. That’s a beautiful thing.
After five years of happy marriage, he and I have two beautiful children. We are a family. And to think that if I had not dealt with the racism inside of me that I would not have dated him. To think that if I had not witnessed hate and saw it within myself that my two beautiful children would not be here. It gives me pause.
Holding on to racism holds you back. I can attest to this. In my case, it almost kept me from meeting the love of my life. I urge you, whoever you are, to take a look inside of yourself and ask if you hold any racial prejudices or even hate. If there is anything I have learned from this experience it’s that it’s ok to be honest and admit the hard things. Stare that prejudice right in the face and get a good look. It will be hard, but I promise you it’s worth it. You never know what you might be keeping yourself from.