Since 1994, I have lived in 6 states and have experienced many transitions of my thought patterns. I grew up in a conservative, small community where most people have similar thoughts and opinions. In my family, as long as you worked hard, you were considered “good people”…color was a description and did not seem to matter. Work hard and be good people.
I do not remember not having black people around. (I would use the term people of color, but the reality is that black people were the only people of color I knew.) My rural classroom was a mixture of black and white children, although probably predominantly white. My teachers were both black and white; I do not remember race being an issue. As I think back, Ms. Butler, a black first-grade teacher, seemed like a grandmother waiting to love on every child that walked into her classroom. I do remember that it seemed as if my black elementary teachers held us to a higher standard of excellence. The teaching of the “whole” child (emotional, intellectual, and physical) seemed extremely important and different from what I experienced with my white teachers.
I admit to being an oblivious child. I tended to disappear into a private world of my own. Watching other children and sensing their needs seemed to be what I was most aware of. The big picture of what might have been going on around me never seemed to enter my consciousness. I was too worried about the girl standing on the sidewalk because no one was playing with her, the girl being teased because she was much taller than everyone else, or the kids who were fighting (Yes, I was a tattletale. I hated to think that someone might be hurt.). On my school bus, I loved Tyrone, who could spin a basketball on his fingers. And Fletcher, who bought me candy whenever I could find 15¢ for him to spend. Yes, I saw the color of their skin, but the only thing that mattered to me was that they were kind.
And then, two incidents occurred that forced me to realize that not everyone else saw the world as I did. When I was in 6th grade, my friend called another friend a “half-breed” and “n****r” and beat him up. Later, an older lady saw a young black girl walking into an unlikely place for her to be. The older lady became flustered and asked me, “Why would that ‘n****r’ girl be going in there?” When I answered, “Because she is friends with ____,” she became angry and told me that she needed to make some phone calls, and I needed to go home.
Until then, I didn’t understand that the color of skin was an issue. I only knew that it was different.
Fast forward through the years, and I have had white friends, black friends, Asian friends, etc., but I never understood that their lives were significantly different from my own. I honestly believed that the only differences in our lives were cultural.
Honestly, the opening up of my mind took a lot of personal work. It is a fact that I struggled to listen and hear what I was being told. It threatened my equilibrium and was more than my ridiculously sensitive heart could bear. It took time for the shock to wear off, and the knowledge to sink into my soul. Here is my journey:
Shortly after the issue about Paula Deen came out, I went to Savannah and met with an old friend. While we were walking around town, I referred to Paula Deen’s restaurant. My dear friend (who is black) quietly said, “It is such a shame that she did those things.” While I agreed it was a shame, how my friend spoke made me pause. I wanted to talk about it, but I didn’t even know what kind of question to ask. I knew that this was a friend I trusted through and through, and if she felt something, it was worth pursuing information.
What on earth do I not know? What am I missing or not understanding? Although I did not know what I needed to learn, I knew there was something I desperately needed to hear. (While many things have occurred in recent years, these are the events that forced me to pay attention.)
- The shooting of Michael Brown occurred, and the riots in Ferguson, MO, took over the news. I began to listen to a Bible study friend because she was from Ferguson. She was level-headed and peaceful, not someone looking to launch an argument.
- Be the Bridge was introduced through a conference, and I immediately felt a need to become a part of it. I began to read online to hear how to learn what I did not know.
- At one point, I felt the strong urge to pray for the son of my Bible study friend. I texted to tell her how I felt an urgency to pray. Her response was so heartfelt and profoundly moving that I began to question even more. I continued to NOT get it.
- Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling came into our world. I won’t lie and say that I understood his reasoning or even cared to understand it. All I knew was that this man was kneeling during the national anthem, and you do not do that. It was clear to me. You stand up. Period. What on earth was happening?
- The film “13th” released on Netflix. First, I watched it with a small group of people. I was appalled at what I saw, but I believed that if I loved people one by one, I could make a difference by modeling what it was like to accept people, no matter their race. It did not click with me that I should be talking about what I was learning.
- I watched “13th” a second time with a larger group of people, and quite honestly, I embarrassed myself. I now choose not to view this event as embarrassing; I now see it as my turning point. My thoughts on Colin Kaepernick changed from outrage to understanding.
- My first Be the Bridge group began, and my life was forever changed. Intimate discussions. Reading books that would have never garnered my attention in the past. Meeting, listening, and processing with women who would forgive me when I said something insensitive. I learned so much. More listening. Less talking.
- My life fell apart, and I clung to the strength of the black women I had met. Their strength and resilience was something I longed for in myself. I held their stories close to my heart, and I regularly thought that if these women can make it through so much and stand with dignity and worth, so can I.
- I began the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work whose vision is “to achieve social, racial, economic, political justice, local to global.” Education and advocacy has become my life. It is who I am, and who I have always been.
Fast forward to present-day United States. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. The effects of these deaths have catapulted Americans into a frenzied state. Some people just want to ignore the “mess” of it all and wait for things to go back to normal. Some people want to attack anything that disrupts their traditional beliefs. Some people want acknowledgement, justice, and reform.
Maybe I’m a religious crazy, but I believe that God has prepared me for this time. He provided me with learning opportunities ahead of this time in history so that I could share what I’ve learned with love. I take the command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” literally.
- I MUST speak out when there are injustices.
- I MUST stand strong when people are treated poorly.
- I MUST listen and learn, because another person’s perspective is just as critical as my own.
- I MUST challenge those who voice disdain to the ones publicly grieving and calling for change.
This has been my journey. Your journey may look a bit different. One thing is for sure; I encourage you to listen, learn, and honor.