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.