Do we honestly think the world would be much different?
I can remember the life-changing conversation I had with my mom when I was eighteen as if it were yesterday. I was working at my first job as a secretary in the fundraising department of a university. It was one of those life moments when you are forced to see something through a different lens and realize your innocent reality had changed in an instant. The conversation went like this:
“Hey, Mom, you won’t believe what happened today. Birdie and her friends took me to this little lunch place, and they all got onion rings and made a dipping sauce out of ketchup and mustard, and they wanted me to try it. I thought it was going to be terrible, but it was so good!”
My mom was at the sink peeling potatoes for dinner. She was half-listening to me as I babbled on about other details of my day, so it took her a moment to process my words. I saw her shoulders stiffen up as she glanced over at me and interrupted.
“Birdie, isn’t she one of the black girls in your office?”
“Well, yeah,” I said, puzzled at her question.
My mom turned her body towards me and looked a little more serious. “You went with her and her friends?”
“Yeah, what’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing, but, were all her friends black?”
“Yes, they were. It was Birdie, two of her girlfriends and their two boyfriends.”
My mom leaned a little closer to me as if she did not want anyone else to hear her. “Weren’t you a little afraid being the only white girl at your table.” I saw a spark of fear in her eyes when she said this.
“Afraid? No, I did not feel afraid. I think I may have been the only white girl in the restaurant, and I did not feel uncomfortable at all.”
My mom turned back to the sink and continued peeling the potato in her hand after looking at me as if I said something outrageous. “Don’t mention this to your father. You know it will just upset him.”
I remember my stomach dropping suddenly that day as her words registered with me. My dad was openly prejudiced about African Americans and just about everyone else. I was used to hearing his harsh criticisms about them, and I used to bristle every time. I had African American friends at my school, and it hurt to listen to him talk like he did. My mom used to try to admonish him when he spoke that way, so I assumed that she was not like that herself. But the pang in my belly was sending off alarms that I was wrong. It was her reinforcement that my father’s speech was incorrect, which bolstered my innocent belief that people were equal. Mind you; I had not experienced the barrage of female inequality experiences to come in the workplace yet. This was the first time I started to question what kind of a world I lived in.
Why should I be afraid of being seen with Birdie and her friends was my initial question? My job centered around high-pressured fundraising events and could be overwhelming at times. Being my first job, Birdie was a lifesaver and helped me get through my deadlines when no one else would. She was kind, funny, and always saw the upside of things. She was ten years older than me, but we became good friends while I worked there. Her friends were just as kind and comfortable to be around. Until that day, I never questioned my safety around them. My fears began to get the best of me, and I wondered, should I be?
I will be the first to admit that there have been times when I have grown uncomfortable walking the streets alone or going through a rough neighborhood or when my car broke down at one o’clock in the morning on I-95 right at the offramp to the Chester projects. I have felt a quiver of fear after seeing a suspicious African American man walking behind me or toward me on the street. I have felt bad about doing it, but I also have felt the same about white men too. I once had an African American teenager ride by on his bike repeatedly and tried to grab my butt as he rode by. My first reaction was not to fear him because of his color. Instead, I attributed his actions to teenage hormones. Wow was that naïve of me, I began to ponder! In everyday interactions with people of any color, I have always tried to look for and assume they are good people.
After this experience with my mom, I started to think about the world I live in and the toxic fears that permeate our society about race. I wondered why so many people fear the other person of color.
I started to daydream about what the world would be like if everyone were white. Would the world be any different? Some white people blame people of color for stealing their opportunities in life. They blame them for the wars that happen, and radicals will blame them for everything from the cause of hurricanes, the source of diseases, or the downfall of our education systems.
So, let’s imagine for a moment that we wake up one day, and everyone has white skin. Tada! Our problems are over. Everyone is equal. Everyone is wealthy. Everyone is happy, just like all the white people were before our great miracle happened. But wait, aren’t there white people warring over borderlines between Ukraine and Russia? Aren’t there white people arguing over which religion is better? Aren’t there different shades of white people arguing over who’s the best shade of white? Aren’t there white people starving in the Appalachian counties in America? Aren’t there white men hurting white women and white children? Have all these problems gone away with the stroke of the white-out brush?
No, I didn’t think so. Until we break the paradigm of fear that perpetuates the prejudices in our hearts against what we see as “the other,” nothing is going to change. It is not the person of another skin color or religion or wealth status that is the problem. The problem is that we see ourselves as separate from everyone else. Until we understand that what we see as a threat outside of ourselves is something about ourselves that needs to be healed inside, the world will keep going on this sad course of pain and division.
When you see that picture on the news of that little brown-skinned boy or girl coming across the border, and you feel fear, ask yourself, why do I fear this innocent child? How do I feel threatened by this family looking for safety and a place to live? If they were white-skinned people, would you feel less threatened, or would you instinctively find something about them to fear? Now it would be their religion or wealth status. The excuses will go on.
I hope that we will begin to stop coming up with excuses to fear the other and investigate the mirror they represent that reveals the fear inside of us that needs healing. How about we try conquering that demon? We don’t need a pasty-white world! We need a fearless world!