“Quiet. . . Julia Likes Black People.”

One afternoon, more than half my life ago, a high school classmate and I were riding in her family car. Her mother was driving, and now I don’t remember what she said – maybe the radio was on with news about the L.A. riots after the Rodney King story, and she said something about “those people.” But what I do remember, vividly, is my classmate saying to her mom in a half-joking, let’s-humor-this-silly-girl tone, “Quiet, Mom. Julia likes black people.”

Yes, in my terrarium of a Christian school in a lily-white southern Minnesota town, I stood out because I would sometimes speak favorably of black people, or occasionally ask someone not to continue telling a racist joke. But I didn’t really know anyone who wasn’t white. And so, not personally knowing anyone of color, I began to idealize non-white people, to paint their plight with a romantically tragic brush.

In my college years, I got to know a few African-American people, and “black people” went from being a homogenous symbol in my mind to the faces and personalities of everyday people I knew in everyday ways.

When Nathan and I decided to buy our first house, we chose a Craftsman charmer in North Minneapolis, which only a few years before was the central reason why Minneapolis was dubbed “Murderapolis.” We did this because beautiful houses were cheap in this neighborhood, and the sellers of the house introduced us to their neighbors, who actually knew each other and greeted us with a warm welcome.

And, personally, I did it because we, as white people, would be in the minority in this neighborhood, and I wanted to know, to understand; and frankly, because at least subconsciously, I thought this would somehow give me points with whoever was keeping score. In the year before buying our house, Nathan and I had become part of a Bible study that partnered a group from our suburban, mostly-white church with a group from an inner-city, mostly-black church. We studied and discussed racism, and attended services at each others’ churches. I was deep in the throes of white guilt, ashamed to be a part of the problem. At this moment of buying our piece of the American dream, I wanted to duck out of the system that was slowly smothering me; and I felt pretty heroic for doing it.

We lived nearly seven years in that beautiful house, welcomed our daughter into the world, shared it with friends and family and people who needed a place to stay for a while. We joined a church walking distance from our house, a remarkable place that was pretty evenly biracial, where people of all skin tones loved me just as I was – a shy, idealistic, recovering good-girl with a God complex. I was patiently and generously embraced right along with all the other sinners.

Thanks to the unconditional love of my church family, I began to humanize every single person around me – no longer idealizing or demonizing anyone – including myself.

In our years in Minneapolis, I witnessed a shooting through my front window and listened in shock as the police officer who came to question me flippantly broke the news that the victim had died.

I laughed with a young man whose low-riding pants fell down as he strutted the sidewalk in front of our house.

I smiled at a child who smiled back and waved at me, while his mother grabbed his hand, glared at me and spit on the sidewalk.

I rode the city bus or strolled to the grocery store with my baby girl who smiled and babbled at everyone she met, and people generally fussed over and adored her.

I watched through my front window one afternoon as a teenage girl ran behind the house opposite mine, pursued by two boys who jumped out of a car that pulled up; and reached for the phone to dial 911, until I saw her emerge from behind the other side of the house, soaking wet and laughing, the boys brandishing their Super Soakers and laughing too.

I paid down-and-out men who came to the door with a rake or a shovel, and they did good yard work for me.

I joined neighbors at Christmas and went to other people’s doors, where we sang carols.

In short, I lived, and the people around me (mostly) lived, and I didn’t do much to save the world, but I did gain a little understanding.

But only a little. And that’s why I’m writing all this – to emphasize that I can never understand, and if you are white in America, neither can you.

That’s bad news if you think that in order to love someone, you must understand them. But I have never agreed with that idea. Yes, seek understanding – that’s always a good idea. But there are some things you will never completely understand or be able to empathize with in the lives of other people, and racism, for white people in America, is one of those things.

Fill the gap that is left between your understanding of another person and the actual person with love, compassion, open ears and an open heart. I mean, it can’t hurt.

So when black people all over our nation are crying out under the weight of all these latest stories of police brutality, please, white America, zip it. Just close your lips and listen.

We the privileged ones are accustomed to having the last word, getting our point across, being heard. This stuff doesn’t come easily to many of us.

But can’t we just try it?
To borrow from my classmate, “Quiet.”

(Yes, I really did just end this serious post with a silly little rhyming couplet.)

PS – Last week I changed the price of an old song I wrote concerning racism to free, and I changed the licensing to Creative Commons, so that it can be shared, remixed, used to make videos, whatever. It’s called “Only the Fools” and you can find it here.

9 Comments

  1. Thanks, Julia. This is a thoughtful post in the midst of a difficult time. No, we can’t really know what our black bothers and sisters are going through right now. But the fact that there is so much pain around this issue shows us we have work to do.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting, Bettina. Yes, there is lots of work to do, and I really do hope we as a society can do the work from a foundation of love and compassion, and *listening* to the people hurt the most by the parts of the system that are broken.

  2. That was a well written post – have you ever considered writing and selling books? I think you’d be awesome at it! Your writing flows, your thoughts are eloquently expressed regardless of my viewpoint on them. I admire your willingness to be open, to embrace life, and live.

    One thing that is always in common with every police incident I’ve read about in the news, is that in every case, the catalyst was the black person was breaking the law, mouthing off and/or disobeying a police officer’s instructions to them. Hence, of course they will experience difficulties. (Why do you think that we had no difficulties with the police in the lily white town we both resided in?)

    That being said, police should respond with appropriate levels of force necessary to restrain their suspect.

    I also take issue with your implication of ‘white priviledge’ that we can never understand the plight of blacks. You wrote,

    “So when black people all over our nation are crying out under the weight of all these latest stories of police brutality, please, white America, zip it. Just close your lips and listen.

    We the privileged ones are accustomed to having the last word, getting our point across, being heard.”

    There is a reason for that reality which has little to do with racism, and it is that people of all races who take responsibility for their own lives, who believe in operating according to the civilized rules of law are generally accorded more respect and listened to by other like minded civilized people.

    Those people who contribute nothing to society, who cannot be bothered to educate or train themselves to make their own living; those people with the mindset that the government will take care of them via welfare, that all those bad white folks owe them for the slavery issue, and no price is too high to repay ‘our slavery debt’; will not garner respect, trust, nor will their opinion be considered worthy of being heard until they change themselves from within.

    And that is real issue; Will black families make the effort to change themselves, their beliefs, and thereby improve their own lives, or will they continue to scream profanities, riot and destroy, and continue to play the VICTIM CARD?

    • Hi Kelly, thanks for your kind words about my writing. Who knows, maybe a book will come out someday!

      I’m going to just allow Tim’s reply to stand for mine as well. And to ask you to please do a little more reading and learning and thinking and listening before you opine on this issue again.

      Here’s a couple basic links to get you started:

      http://amptoons.com/blog/files/mcintosh.html (Peggy McIntosh’s seminal piece on white privilege)

      http://www.buzzfeed.com/nathanwpyle/this-teacher-taught-his-class-a-powerful-lesson-about-privil

      • Good Morning Tim and Julia,

        I had to smile at your comment, but the underlying causes for blacks remains the same, and is in their own ballpark as I wrote. There is no reason for whites to feel either guilty or responsible for their lives. Neither you nor I have caused their circumstances. So, I stand by my comment as written.

        Changing gears; Julia, I was thinking more about your writing, and think that you would be an awesome author! I hope to see books by you in print some day!

        Kelly

        • Honestly, I am amazed to see, both in this blog post and in some exchanges I’ve had on Facebook, how a call to show compassion and be a listener to people who are hurting can raise such defensive responses. This is not about you, Kelly, and it’s not about me, and it’s not about blame or playing the victim card.

          With all due respect (and I think you know I mean that), I am going to delete your other reply to Tim. It is just more of the same thing you’ve been saying, when my whole post has been a call to listening rather than speaking.

          I’m not engaging with your arguments, either. You want the last word, you want to get your point across, to be heard. Granted. But further commentary will be deleted.

  3. Dear Kelly,

    I’m saying saying this with the utmost respect. Did you forget to “close your lips and listen.” Are you one of the privileged ones who is accustomed to having the last word, getting your point across, being heard? Until we walk in their shoes . . . listen and, if not, at least go and have good dialog with someone whose black.

  4. I’ve felt guilty for not saying much about this in public, but that might be the best thing I could do. Easier to listen when you’re not talking.

  5. “In short, I lived, and the people around me (mostly) lived, and I didn’t do much to save the world, but I did gain a little understanding.” What a piece of writing you have here.

    This article is very fine, Julia, maybe the best you have written so far. Naturally I have a lot to say, it is very hard to control myself reading Kelly’s shocking response, but I am glad it is here, one couldn’t ask for a better example of what privileged white america sounds like.

    I guess I won’t talk this time, but if I did, I would certainly talk about slavery, (the “slavery issue”) about CENTURIES of slavery, and how the southern economy was built on it, how in the decade before the civil war black slaves outnumbered whites in South Carolina, how wealth, like energy, doesn’t just evaporate, thus it is true that the fruits of hundreds of years of slave labor still rolls through our society.

    And I would talk about how after reconstruction, when federal troops withdrew from the south, freedoms newly enjoyed by black people were systematically destroyed by the white establishment, culminating in what we remember as the Jim Crow laws. And how if you read the slave narratives commissioned during the New Deal, many elderly slaves recalled the “reconstructed” south as being more dangerous than it was during slavery.

    I would have to talk about how Jim Crow drove desperate blacks in mass waves to the north, where they settled in places like NYC and Cleveland and Chicago and Detroit, and where they were forced into “black” neighborhoods, after which time the cities withdrew police, did not repair infrastructure, intermittently operated municipal things like garbage pick up, which naturally caused neighborhoods to decay, which of course nice, “civilized” society blamed on the inhabitants of those neighborhoods…and all the while these areas becoming Democratic Party strongholds, as northern Dems pandered to blacks even while southern Dems kept blacks and poor whites–people that should have been natural allies–separate and at each other’s throats, constantly warning dirt poor whites about the specter of “Negro rule.”

    I would have to mention our 28th president, good old Woodrow Wilson, who fired African-American government workers in Washington, segregated the military, and held a showing of the infamous racist film “Birth of a Nation” in the White House, and how after his administration the Ku Klux Klan arose phoenix-like to operate as a both a terrorist and political entity.

    I suppose I would have to discuss things like incarceration, how it is that there are over 2200 per 100,000 blacks incarcerated vs a few hundred per 100,000 for whites.

    Would have to mention Detroit, which, at this moment, is shutting off water to thousands of homes, almost exclusively black homes, while avoiding white neighborhoods and businesses, including Ford Field, which is something like 50,000 dollars in arrears for its water bill.

    Above all, I would want to talk about how “white guilt,” and “apologies” are not the same things as a cold-eyed look at history, and realizing that U.S. politics and policies are, and always have been, viciously racist. It was not JFK or LBJ that did anything for civil rights. They were forced to take action by hundreds of thousands of protesters and demonstrations, over many years. This country needs a spiritual return to the 60’s, I am so glad to see people in the streets.

    I would love to just talk talk talk about these things, but I better not, this time.

    And I thank you for your perfectly written and spot on post.

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