“I can’t imagine what it’s like to be white, even for one day,” my friend said wistfully. We talked after yet another experience in a series of both subtle and overt snubs clearly related to her dark skin, that I’d witnessed during our thirty years of friendship.
Sometimes when the actions of a rude clerk were impossible to ignore, I’d gently chide the person, hand them a “Thank you for your kindness” card, and say, “You really need to be kinder to people.” But I simmered with barely suppressed anger at what my friend, and all black people, regardless of status, endure on a daily basis. She couldn’t imagine not being on the alert wherever she was, given what’s on the news these days, thinking that at any moment some crazed old white guy with an arsenal of guns might decide that this was a good day to shoot someone with dark skin.
Is she another “angry black woman” with a chip on her shoulders braced for possible insults? You bet she is. But she’s really a woman scared; no matter what she says, teaches, or does; no matter the extent of her sacrifices for her family, she still can’t keep her sons protected regardless if they’re presidents or twelve-year olds. And their daughters too; for black women are the fastest growing prison population.
Aside from my friend’s many personal experiences of racism, here’s one of the reasons why she’s so chronically traumatized: each racist slight keeps her wounds open and fresh.
When her 19-year-old son was a top student on scholarship at a small southern college, he was arrested for murder while walking down the street. It took her several weeks to raise the money for bail and to find a local lawyer who was able to prove her son’s innocence and get him out of jail.
But whatever happened to him in jail, and God only knows whether or not he was violently raped as so many are (an estimated 250,000 a year!), he was so traumatized by being held behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit that he dropped out of school. He has since gone from job to job, self-medicating himself with alcohol and drugs for PTSD.
This once promising young black man is seemingly doomed by the trauma of that incarceration; that of an innocent man and its effects on his family. An estimated 50,000 innocent people a year are imprisoned.
His mother too, has never been the same since, and never will. It has taken her years to pay back the thousands she’d begged and borrowed to get him free. Not every young, black male who is profiled and arrested has the good fortune to have a mother fighting for his rights.
Once while vacationing in the Bahamas with two friends from work, one white and one black, we were told by some local people that they’d assumed we were all prostitutes, as “generally black and white women did not usually vacation together.”
Why are white people so afraid of black people, especially young, black males? Is it some twisted psycho-sexual fear of them stealing their white women, as the number of whites in the population declines? Is it some primordial fear that with slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration, on some level whites are afraid of retribution ever since slavery? Is it the media that profits on highlighting young blacks as criminals, despite any evidence to the contrary, criminalizing a generation?
Most whites, good, kind people, would be baffled and dismayed if it was pointed out to them that it is passive, unconscious racism bubbling just under the national new hobby of Frightened Americans, hating Obama no matter what he does or says. They are ignorant of the daily land mines of oppression most blacks face each day. Or that the laws and policies their politicians vote for harm poor people, who ironically are mostly white.
I used to think that it would be possible for blacks and whites to develop deep friendships and understanding of other cultures, if only we could live together in integrated, quality schools, fair housing, acceptable health care, and with the unlimited possibilities available for those with white skin. The kind of friend you call when your heart is broken, your car has broken down or you just need some help. The kind of friend most blacks and whites don’t ever experience.
Now I’m not so sure. How difficult it must be for black people to really trust white people under ongoing oppressive laws and policies and the constant denigration and attacks. Especially on young black males, who are criminalized, disenfranchised and traumatized by torture behind bars.
Many years ago, my family was friendly with a family from Barbados. Our kids were the same age, played together, had sleepovers at each other’s houses, and went on day trips, all piled together into my station wagon. Their mother and I walked our five-year-old sons to the first day of half-day kindergarten with their new backpacks, shiny shoes, and excitement at finally going to school in Media, PA, a town priding itself on its integration.
At noon, we waited for the boys to come home. When they finally arrived, her dark-skinned son was in tears and my son looked confused. What had happened? The crying boy tearfully described how the other students in the class had called him a N*****! Shocked, I turned to my boy and asked him what he had done. He shamefacedly admitted that he too had called his best friend the N-word, a word he’d never heard uttered at home, a word that he didn’t even know what it meant. Our home, where we were once honored to have Martin Luther King, Jr. come for dinner.
How could this be? My sweet, innocent boy? After tears were wiped away and hugs given to both boys, as they went off with a snack to play, their mother and I wept in each other’s arms.
I had to acknowledge that despite what children are taught in the home, the racist culture had permeated their kindergarten class, and no doubt all classes in this mostly white, suburban American town. That culture and its peer pressure had already poisoned the minds of innocent children. Years later when my grown son and I discussed the incident, he had no memory of it.
I doubt if his dark-skinned friend would ever be able to forget; learning at a tender age that whites could not be trusted to stand up for them when attacked by other whites. This is at the core of our national psychosis which grew out of control after 9-11. The resulting militarization and violence of unchecked police forces now wage war against its citizens, especially against young black males.
What’s been happening in Ferguson and so many other places is not an anomaly. It is not a rare thing, highlighting the stain of racism from never-ending slavery to, Jim Crow, to investing in mass incarceration rather than education. Post 9-11 our nation sinks lower and lower into a national, fear-filled psychosis, stomping on all of our rights, justifying them in the name of “Homeland Security.”
When will we wake up?