Please Call Back.
I made a huge mistake in the world of tough phone call etiquette. I didn’t listen to understand; I listened at the expense of my own pain. It was a short conversation, but one I’ve had multiple times since the world watched George Floyd’s murder. Trying to listen, I was distracted with a memory, I so profoundly wanted to share but knew it wasn’t the right time. A white person needed me to absolve them of their guilt. I wanted to tell him unless he was beating slaves in his basement, I didn’t care. I didn’t say it. Then the calls of black person(s) that needed me to share the pain of brown and black skin. I did. Yet, both were so heavy, I could only retreat to my own need for support and my memories carried me through life’s moments.
The story of a young and scared white woman, 6 months pregnant and squeezed between the back seat and floor of a car. She was driven from West Virginia to Cleveland by her boyfriend in secret because she couldn’t tell her parents; they would disown her. She was on the floor because those passengers understood the consequences of driving through southern Ohio in 1972, with a white woman in the front seat, could mean a beating and possible death for the boyfriend. He was black. They were my parents.
I remembered my mostly white, catholic grade school and pledging “allegiance…indivisible with justice for all…” while being ridiculed and called the worst of racist names by children who could not have possibly known what they meant. The feelings of confusion about where I fit in the world. Not because I was mixed but because my very presence seemed to confuse everyone else so much, they felt compelled to regularly remind me of who they thought I was. And it was never consistent but the names used to describe my white mother were in our decidedly black neighborhood. I think about the white high school with me as the lone negro on my first day being told to “go back to Africa.”
I remembered friends that looked like me saying I couldn’t ask for more of myself because white people held all the cards. My brother being beaten by black boys that told him they didn’t like light-skin. I think of being pulled over for speeding in Medina, Ohio and crying big ugly tears in front of the state trooper because Tamir Rice had just been murdered, while he stood quietly and patiently, telling me he understood and was sorry.
I think about the survivors guilt I felt walking into a large group of my peers at work with no one there that looked like me; how did I make it out of poverty and homelessness and others didn’t? Why did I have to work three times as hard for so much less? Then I remember being asked to speak for all black people in that company when I wanted nothing more than to be heard as a woman whose perspective was only partly informed by being black.
I remembered a white woman complaining about my lack of flexibility when another black woman was late to my meetings multiple times. The shock I felt when she reported to HR that I should be lenient because my team member had to catch the bus all the way to work from inner city Cleveland. And it was a lie. The bus was from one end of the parking lot to the next but the fact that she believed she was saving this woman broke my heart.
I have a lot of those checked out moments, especially when people misinterpret my grace. White people want me to excuse their whiteness and tell them they’re one of the good ones. Black people assume I fully agree with the BLM movement. Both conversations hurt but I’m afraid to say so and my role has traditionally been to listen when others want to fight.
These past two weeks, I’ve struggled with what to write; how to best convey this gray area. I’ve even been prepared to share statistics and the stories of unarmed Americans killed by police. I’ve wanted to share stories of how we’ve all treated each but I don’t. At first, I believed it was that black people would call me an Uncle Tom; treat me as a traitor when our only story seems to be that of rage against racism. Now, I know I didn’t share because for me, statistics simply offer a way to ground me and provide an accurate framework for how I navigate the world. What it does for others, when people are hurting, shows a lack of compassion and empathy. I won’t contribute to that and no one gives a fuck about statistics when they’re hurting. They care about the pain and the trauma they’ve each, individually experienced. I knew this for a fact when I watched a dear friend cry while she shared her family story of abuse at the hands of police. Her story and the collective rage many feel must be heard and healed and changed.
Yet, even in my empathy and unwillingness to go against that hard line drawn in the sand, I can’t see the world in black and white. It’s not, despite all efforts to convince me so. All stories and experiences and gray area are valuable. I still want to talk about the black blood we spill but I stay silent because it seems I’m only allowed to exist in victimization by whites. Can we talk about how our parents, parents, parents warned us about the other race and how they once behaved; how that bias stays in our bones? How do I tell you I cannot support white privilege; that I can’t consent to acknowledging another being as better than me by virtue of the color of their skin? What is the right way to say I believe it empowers victimhood?
I want to talk about how we treat the LGBTQI+ community, as they are murdered without recourse or even acknowledgement. I want to talk about how the police treat Americans. I want to talk about the white people bullying each other and every person being called a racist for merely existing. Can we talk about giving Nancy Pelosi an afro pick with a fist? Ok, I don’t, but I do want to talk about the pandering because it seems easier to do than actually policymaking. And I really want to talk about how to support the release of generational trauma and victimhood. It’s real and I’m not counting on white people to fix that; we must. When can we talk about those things?
So, I’m here and struggling in this in-between land of race, recognition and waiting all lives to mean something. I don’t have a black or white line drawn in the sand; it’s just not that simple and we are all accountable for change.
Our facets, our labels, our understanding changes every moment we live and sometimes we lie to ourselves to lay responsibility in another’s lap. We all have stories of nuance don’t we? I have them and going forward, I promise I’ll listen and then offer an AND instead of but; honoring our diversity of thought to find a common solution.
Please call me again, email and message me, I want to hear your stories, I want to understand the nuance of pain AND…because it’s not so black and white. I think I can hear you now.