What’s the answer?

There has been so much violence, hate and sadness in the news lately. I feel it, and I want to say things. But as a 40-something white woman, I often fear that my comments will be misunderstood or judged because others think this fight is not mine.

Over the last week, I’ve seen multiple comments from friends on social media who have concerns about their own safety simply because of the color of their skin. This makes me desperately sad, because I know these are not people to be feared.

About twenty years ago, I witnessed blatant, hateful racism for the first time in my life. An employee at my company was late to work, and when I asked her why, she recounted the story about how she was in a minor fender bender. The tale ended with her telling the other driver (who she had mentioned earlier was black),  Listen, I’m trying to get to work. You’re just going to pick up a welfare check.”

She walked out of my office, and I never said anything to her. For a long time, I told myself it was because I was so stunned with her comment (which I was), but now I know it was cowardly to not speak up. I still regret it. Coincidentally, that night we had dinner with black friends, and I told them the story. There was first silence at the table, and then the comment, “I always considered this discussion off-limits with white friends.” We sat for three more hours as the restaurant emptied, and talked about it. I heard stories of our friend, who is a soft-spoken, petite black professional woman, and how white women walked by her, clutching their purses close. Even if I didn’t know her, I couldn’t imagine that I’d find her the least bit threatening, and it bothered me to think that other people could.

black and white

I do find it hard to believe when people tell me they “don’t see color.” I wonder how that’s possible, especially when many people live in places where the majority of faces are white. Of course I notice the color of people’s skin, just as I notice the color of their hair, their height, or other characteristics. But the color of someone’s eyes, hair or skin doesn’t define their character or who they are.

I wonder how things might change if people like me felt like it was okay to talk about all of this, and I’m not sure how we could even start. Some of us get tongue-tied just trying to decide if we should use the term “black” or “African-American,” because we fear that we might offend. And if we can’t even get past that, how can we have a meaningful discussion?

It saddens me that friends need to have conversations with their black children about how to respond if they encounter a police officer. Because the conversation should be no different than the one I have with my white children — “Obey the law, and be respectful.” Because parents of black children fear that might not be enough.

I hate to think that people I know can’t be comfortable commuting to and from work, because they feel they are being scrutinized by fellow commuters, merely for how they look. They worry more about “being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” because just the color of their skin puts them at risk.

I really don’t know what the answer is. I do think that if we all felt just a little more comfortable talking with each other about it, maybe that would give us all a little more understanding.




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