I’ve been sitting on this idea for awhile, feeling a bit hesitant to write about it. There’s so much out there right now, with Ferguson and other stories captivating our nation’s attention. A lot of it is such good stuff, and I don’t want to add to the noise unless I have something to say. If you read this post, or you follow me on Twitter, you know that I’ve been watching closely. I can’t look away. This is too important for my generation, and the one coming after it. But then I saw this last week, and I knew it was time to speak up. I couldn’t even read the entire piece because it made me sick to my stomach. This was me, you guys.
I grew up at a privileged, Christian school with a solid and consistent group of black friends. It was a K-12 school, so I literally went through life with the same people for over a decade. Like all kids do, we’d get hung up on certain trends and jokes. There was the Why does it have to be a color thing? response whenever the word black was used in any sort of context in the classroom. There were comments about oreo cookies when we’d line up for photos at parties. I put a Confederate flag sticker on my truck when I turned sixteen, and nobody ever said a word to me about it. I even watched as two of my black friends made a joke about watermelon when picking out candy one time.
I assumed it was all in good fun, until the day I made one of those comments to them. They were so gracious with me, but they absolutely put me in my place. You don’t get to make those jokes, Rach. About that same time, I noticed someone had scratched f*** you through the Confederate flag sticker on my truck. I asked one of my black friends if he was offended by it, and he spoke such wisdom to me. If you have to ask, why have it up there at all?
I’m grateful I didn’t make it out of high school without such valuable lessons. I quickly learned a thing about being a white girl with black friends. I quickly learned a thing about being white in general. I’m a spectator to a culture and background that is not my own. It’s an honor to be a part of it, sure. I’m grateful to get in the mix and learn about it and bring value to it. But their story is not my story. Their past is not my past. The jokes and the comments and the flags were never pointed at me. These weren’t my feelings at stake. Thank God my friends of color were gracious and gentle with me. I’ve kept up with them throughout the years and repeated the sentiments over and over. I’m sorry. I’m grateful. I’m listening.
Of course, this can go beyond race. I could get much broader and talk about respect in general. Just because your friend jokes about his nose doesn’t give you freedom to poke fun. Just because your coworker complains about the burden of a special-needs child doesn’t give you license to join her. But let’s stay on race today, for just a minute. It’s incredibly tender and difficult to stay on a topic like this because it makes people uncomfortable. So let’s get uncomfortable and stay there.
I have the freedom to feel however I want. I can laugh at jokes and make comments and put flags in places. That’s my right. However, I do not have the right to assume that people feel the way I do or understand my heart. I do not have the right to explain or defend my way into living a lifestyle that devalues people. My intentions will never speak louder than my actions. As a white person, I don’t think I have the right to feel any sort of way about how people of color should feel or should think.
When you want to learn something, get out of your story and into someone else’s. Go to where the wisdom is. It’s exactly what I did, and I was humbled in the most beautiful and painful of ways. Once I saw life through a new lens, I could no longer defend a Confederate flag sticker on my car. I could no longer laugh at watermelon jokes.
I decided never again did I want to have a conversation like the one in high school. Never again did I want to watch someone I loved tell me how much I’d hurt them with my ignorance. So I just stopped, right then and there. I repented. I stayed in the mix, but with new eyes and new ears and a new mouth and a new heart. I saw the jokes and comments and flags for how hurtful and and degrading and divisive they were, and suddenly my intentions didn’t matter anymore. I began striving for a life of reconciliation. I wanted a lifestyle that removes all barriers.
These days, that lifestyle looks like a lot of listening. A lot of asking questions. A lot of reading. A lot of conversations with my kids. There’s a revolution happening in front of our eyes, people. I’m doing my best to arm the next generation to join it, by bringing value and peace to every person they encounter.