“I can’t… I just can’t look.”
These words have spewed out of my mouth all too many times in the past few weeks as I’ve been shown a video of another person of color being murdered by law enforcement.
I feel a juxtaposition of emotions as I watch each time- both of shame, for my cowardice in even wanting to witness the brutality, and of sorrow- true, unadulterated frustration. Sadness. But I am just one white girl who has never been on the receiving end of this kind of hatred first-hand. I’ve never had to think about it before walking out of my front door in the morning. I’ve never had to live with the low lying risk and heartache and frustration every single day of my life.
The reality is, as a person with white skin, I can feel whatever I want to, I can acknowledge an urge to DO something to try and “fix” it. I can get angry; I can post all of the powerful quotes on social media. I can feel, do, march, even take action. But because of my skin tone, I will never truly understand what it is like to live life day to day as a person with dark skin.
The amount of tears I cry or the intensity of the anger I feel rising inside of me will not change that fact. I grew up without fear of others and their judgments. I have lived my life free of the worry that I would be met with acts of violence for merely “looking” a certain way or because of the amount of pigmentation in my blood. I can’t even tell you of a time when someone looked at me and made a negative judgement about my character based solely off of the shade of my skin.
We will never understand, not in the same way at least.
I was in the sixth grade when I first felt that lack of understanding. It hit me like a ton of bricks as I sat in the plastic chair connected to a metal desk in front of me. This was the first time that I had moved out of my predominantly white suburban elementary school to a middle school that was further into the city. Our desks were shaped in a semi-circle. The empty seat next to me was filled by a girl who had dark skin. I had only known one, maybe two students before who were not white like I was. As we began talking and sharing about ourselves, I remember distinctly the question she asked me, “Do you even know what a ghetto is?”
I turned red, looked down, and audibly answered “no.”
“No.” I had no idea what a ghetto was. But she did. She lived that word and felt all of its implications day after day; the lack of all things easy, nothing having been given to her freely. The cycle that had begun with oppression and continued through difficult circumstances outside of her control engulfed her. She scoffed, (as she had every right to), and turned back to her friends.
In that moment, as a twelve year old in a new school, I felt confused and ashamed, but I wasn’t even sure what I felt ashamed about at the time. Now, I know. I was privileged. PRIVILEGED. I had everything in life up to that point handed to me, with everyone believing that I could do whatever I put my mind to, believing that I had the best of intentions no matter what I was doing. Privileged doesn’t have to mean that I was cocky or arrogant. At least I hope I wasn’t. But I was absolutely, positively, one hundred percent privileged, as I am now.
She didn’t have that privilege- to have things laid out for her or to have others believe the best in her ALL the time. She was faced with the reality of the brokenness of our systems and our authorities every day. She understood- I didn’t.
Things weren’t right then, and they aren’t right now.
Later, in college, I was appointed the “sunshine chair” of my sorority. In fact, the older girls in charge created the position for me. Okay, I know. The sixth-grade girl with pressed clothes and perfect hair grows up to be sunshine chair of her sorority. (I promise it was not all quite that superficial). In this sorority house, in one of the largest state schools in the country, with one of the largest and most predominant Greek systems, every member was white. The kitchen staff (which some of the older alums still referred to as “the help”) were black. I saw, dimly, the blatantly separate, racially fueled traditions that had carried on, but didn’t speak up. No one talked about it. It was just how it was.
I grew to love the sorority’s kitchen staff, particularly the head chef, as one of the most genuinely kind women I’d ever known. Since I ended up living in the sorority house, I got to know her very well. One of the things that I enacted as “sunshine chair” was to put a little mailbox that I had bought from Hobby Lobby and decorated (again, I know), in the snack room as a place that people could write encouraging notes to the kitchen staff to say thank you for all of the work they do for us.
I, along with several others, wrote notes to them periodically, which they found and received as small pieces of recognition for the ways that they would go out of their way to love us, which they did, every single day.
One day, I was approached by the president of the sorority to tell me that one of the members had written some horrible racist remarks on paper- anonymously of course- and left them in the mailbox. Something to the effect of “You —–s need to get out, your kind isn’t welcome here.”
I immediately went to the kitchen and with heaves of frustration, apologized to the woman who had shown us all only grace and love. With tears in my eyes, I told her that I can’t imagine how someone could have done that. In that moment, she looked at me with eyes of pure kindness that seemed to say, “I know, Morgan. It hurts. But you have so much to learn.”
Then, she hugged me. She hugged me.
This woman, who had just been sorely mistreated, who had been beaten down by words of hatred while only loving and working tirelessly day in and day out- hugged me, the ignorant white girl who only received. She saw my blindness, apathy, lack of awareness, and loved me as I was, even then.
The one who had been broken by the system and misjudged her whole life for something that wasn’t fair- gave undeserved love to someone who didn’t look like her. She had every reason to throw in the towel, cuss everyone out, and leave. Our organization would have been all the worse off for it and it would have been deserved. But instead, she told me that she had gone out to her car, turned up some gospel music, and sang. That’s how she responded, and the mere fact that she had to do that on that day displays what’s wrong in our country.
The way that she responded- the way that she hugged me, with the kind of hug that you can only remember in feelings and cannot be explained in words- that is the gospel. That is how I hope to see others in the midst of the racial tension that is thickening ever so frequently. Justice will ultimately be served by the God of the Universe, but it is our duty to stand up now and speak, to see, to pay attention. We must think about how people who don’t look like us feel, particularly if the ones who look different are the ones who are being victimized and brutally murdered without just cause.
These days, when a story like George Floyd’s emerges in the news, I don’t feel the anger solely due to the indecency to humanity.
I now think about the implications within our immediate family. I think about our son. Our beautiful son who joined our family through domestic adoption. I have many regrets about how I have handled racial injustice and pervasive racial inequity up to this point. I know that I will never be a perfect mother to him. But I know that I can take the immense privilege of being his mom, and realize how much the stakes are raised for me in stewarding his life because of the color of his skin. I will always have more to learn, and I will never fully understand what it is like to be him- what he will experience as he grows up in our country. That fact is not lost on me.
I know; however, that I can be educated. I can take steps to make sure he is seen and heard and known exactly as he is, by others with a similar heritage. I can honor him for the beauty of his ancestry. I can advocate against “color blindness.” I can hold his hand through every twist and turn. I can politely refute people who say that we are ‘good people’ or ‘must have it figured out’ because our child has darker skin than us. Those things do not correlate, and we have that much MORE to figure out given the intersection of our lives with his. Our love for him will propel us forward, as will the lives of the ones around us who do not share our skin tone.
I will watch each video of police brutality, each murder, each act of unjust violence as it comes across my phone or tv screen. Because it is the reality of the time we live in. And our children deserve for us to be aware of the injustice and do what we can to face it head on.
White friends, I urge you to take a look at your past, your present, and your future. Where can you shift your thinking, where can you go to become more aware? How can you humbly accept your privilege, and your deep set biases that you may not have realized were even there?
And then, let’s talk. Please. Because it is what we need to be talking about. For George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor. For all the ones who came before them and are to come- we owe them our conversation, our intention, our love.