The main reason I started The Echoes Blog was because I wanted us to share stories that might give us insight to how supremacy, prejudice, ignorance, untruths, and the dangers of inequality and disproportionate power run through the veins of our society and infect our humanity with hate and entitlement.
Months ago I had this idea to ask my friends when they realized they were racially/ethnically different. I wondered if it was an event that revealed it to them or if it was just a realization over time. I wondered if they could pinpoint that moment, how they felt, and how it has impacted them through the passage of time.
The first time I realized the importance of skin color, I was very young. My grandmother asked me what color my friend was and I said, “Peach…kinda like me.” So admittedly, I had some issues distinguishing colors. But the important thing here is that I paid absolutely no attention to race. She was my friend. I knew we were a little different, but not so much that it mattered to the detriment of our friendship.
My grandmother told me, “No. You’re different. You’re black. She’s white.”
It’s a strange memory, though fuzzy, to have at such a young age. I don’t remember how it affected me in that moment. But I do know that from then on, I noticed that I was the only black girl in my class; or, at least, one of very few.
Years later, on a road to Arkansas to visit my great grandmother, my father pulled over at a gas station. My older sister and I got out, bounced into the gas station where we were allowed to pick one snack. Our seven/eight-year-old selves could hardly contain our excitement; and, after showing our treats to the cashier so Daddy could pay for them, we ran out the door, giggling all the way to the car. Our innocent laughter was cut short when a minute later he grabbed us both by the arm and very sternly told us to never, he repeated never, run out of a store. “You’re black,” he told us, “They’ll think you stole something.”
And then there was the time I heard the word, “nigger.” As Daddy pulled our car into the apartment complex late one night, the family quiet and tired, a man from a balcony apartment yelled: “You’re a nigger.” I really had never been taught that word. My mother tried very hard to allow me my innocence without the mars of hate and prejudice. So I shouldn’t have known what it meant. But, something in the attitude of the way he said it told me the word was bad; ugly.
Many of my non-white friends have stories like these. Some of them happened when they were four; some when they were fourteen. But they all remember that moment. It’s woven into the cloth of our existence. And we often shoulder the burden that our color often colors the way we are seen.
When my friends have asked about white privilege, my short answer is: “It’s the privilege of not having one of these stories. Or, it’s the privilege of this story not being a warning, an omen, or a shadow of past ignorance and crystal ball of future hatred.”
Listening to others share their stories about the first time they were told and/or treated like a minority was more than just interesting to me. It was educational. It showed me that the sting of racism is still a little different in the South. It showed that we could take each story and replace the race and/or ethnicity with another minority and it’s the same thing. It showed that, even though we often try to relegate these things to the past, children, ages fourteen and seventeen, still have similar stories. And it confirmed that the work we have to do is far from over. But the first stop is sharing our story and speaking our truth.
For many, especially for minorities, it’s easy to see yourself as the protagonist of these stories. You read them and cast yourself as the supportive friend, the encouraging parent, or the discriminated against. But what if you read these stories and cast yourself as the antagonist? What if you look for the statements being said and ask yourself if you’ve ever said something like it?
What if you made yourself out to be the bad guy in order to be a better person?
I hope you’re enlightened by the September Series: “The first time I knew I was different…”