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Let’s Let Our Guard Down and Open Up About Race

Sarah Ratliff

yay-14487248-digitalI am not a parent, but I don’t need to be one to know it is heartbreaking each time a child’s spirit is broken. We come into this world a blank sheet of paper on which so much is and can be written. We are our experiences, our upbringing, our feelings and our personalities, and we bring all of this with us into the world.

Our homes are like bubbles. Unless we’ve grown up in abuse, dysfunction and chaos, we are instantly accepted from the moment we take our first breath, and with each breath we take we receive more love, affection and affirmation.

Parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends of parents and siblings dote on us and remind us we are special.

And we are. We all are … until the day we leave that bubble and enter the world of cruel remarks, sticks and stones, innuendo, labels, hatred, sexism, racism and the plethora of isms that are thrown at us. Whether we learn to deflect or absorb them is almost immaterial. That they exist is the point.

I remember the first time an ism was directed at me. I was only six years old. A White girl told me I couldn’t play jacks with her and her friends because my mommy had nappy hair.

I had no clue what she was talking about. I asked my teacher why I couldn’t play with them. I repeated to her what this girl had told me. Her green eyes and red hair would have told this now 48-year-old woman who’s seen the ugliest side of humanity why my teacher would have a glazed over look on her face. My six-year-old me had no idea why my teacher—the person in charge of teaching me and protecting me for seven hours a day—cocked her head to one side and stared at me like I had grown three green heads.

What else could I do? I went back to the group of girls and told them that I was the jacks champion in my neighborhood—and I was—and that I really wanted to play them. “Go away and find another nigger to play with.”

Oh, I thought to myself, nappy hair is some code word for ‘your momma is Black and we don’t want your kind.' Click To Tweet

That was the first of many—in fact innumerable times—my spirit was broken. It and all the other isms I have experienced, all the isms I have watched others experience, have all contributed to the pessimistic and hardened woman I am today.

I went through life hoping that nobody else would experience this kind of hatred—especially not as young as I did. At a time when we’re supposed to feel free to play, joke, laugh, chase our friends in a game of hide-n-seek, speak without self-censoring and just be, the sad fact is this is a luxury and a privilege that not all have a right to.

Each time I saw another child whose spirit was broken simply because people feel the need to put others in their place—in order to feel superior—it reinforced the feeling that there is no such thing as a level playing field.

While some feel it’s a birthright to have been born American, White, male, Christian, upper middle class (or higher) and/or to have access to excellent education with an expectation of success, all of that seems to render them incapable of seeing others who don’t wear the same labels as being equal, despite all the isms. I don’t want to be like them.

But my heart breaks each time I hear or read about a young person who is exposed to the ugly truth.

Case in point, how does an innocent and fun staring contest turn into the suspension of a Black child from school and a White child free to pour milk on another child’s lunch without repercussion?

That this could be your child doesn’t cross the minds of most folks because of that birthright/privilege thing. That this is yet another child whose spirit is irrevocably broken is of little consequence to many. That this child will, as he phrases it, “…understand I done the wrong thing that will never happen again. I will start to think before I do so I am not in this situation.”

There’s more in this statement than his admission of wrongdoing, which I don’t for a second believe he is guilty of. What he is really saying is, “I understand society sees me as a Black person and therefor inferior and I have no choice but to think before speaking, before acting and before assuming I have the same rights as my peers.”

I posted this article on my Facebook wall and understandably people expressed anger over it. What saddens me more than people’s anger is that when a White person expresses genuine empathy, he is shot down for his comment.

“What is this, 1950?” asked Jason.

“Jason, it’s not 1950, it’s America!” shot back David.

Jason is White and David is Black. Being Biracial, I am neither and yet I am both. I saw immediately that Jason was expressing anger about the situation and at the same time equating this to a time when it could result in anything from jail to being beaten or even killed.

David understandably thought of his experiences being a Black man in a society that repeatedly reminds us we aren’t equal when he shot his defensive comment back. I don’t think David realized that despite the fact that Jason isn’t Black and he hasn’t experienced what I have, let alone what David (as a brown complected Black man) has, that he was expressing empathy, extending his hand out and in effect saying, “I am not one of them.”

David’s knee-jerk reaction is the result of being that child who’s now got a suspension on his record for staring at a White girl; me for being told I can’t go where the White kids go because my mommy was Black, the third person who was beaten up and dragged by a pick up truck and all the others who remind us it’s not a level playing field.

Having the ability to see both sides, I immediately responded, “And America is also the home of separate but equal; segregation today, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever; shock jocks who give call outs to the Rutgers women’s basketball team by labeling them “Nappy headed hoes”; cops who repeatedly get away with murdering Black suspects, the Charleston 9 and folks getting offended over the ‪#BlackLivesMatter movement.

“It is worse than 1950. At least in 1950 Blacks (although fed up) knew their place and knew there was little hope of achieving equality. Today folks have been led down a path that promises if you do this, you’ll achieve that. But the fine print gets us every time.”

So what’s my point? I am—once again—dismayed. Why can’t a 12-year-old Black child participate in the age-old staring contest with a White child without it ending up that he has a suspension on his record? Why can’t a White 30-something male express empathy and anger over this without having his motives called into question? Why does a 50-something Black man respond to a White’s man’s gesture of empathy with a kneejerk “you don’t understand, you’re not Black!” reaction? Why are White people so offended and assume we’re referring to all White people or pointing the finger at them when we talk about our feelings? Why is it that when I—a Biracial woman—say that some White people are still racist and that Black people need to stop themselves from being so reactionary, that I am called a racist by both sides?

Why in 2015, more than 50 years after the Civil Rights movement ended, are we still asking these questions?

I think it’s time to let our guards down and talk openly about race. Get it out there. I don’t imagine initially the discussions will be fun, but I think we can achieve a better understanding of one another if we actually try.

Are you willing to join me?


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