I admit it, I’ve been very naive.
I thought we were doing better. Much better. I grew up hearing about Martin Luther King, Jr. In 7th grade we watched the TV mini-series “Roots” in school. I grew up in New Jersey, and at least half of our student population was African American. I knew a lot of the “blacks” lived on the “west side” of town, a place where we only traveled through on our way to the mall. It was the poor section of town, what was called “the ghetto” back then. It was the 1970s. Blacks and whites didn’t mix much. Even in elementary school, we all chose to sit separately in the lunchroom. There was a little black girl named Ruth who bullied me all through 4th grade. She always threatened to “beat my butt” if I didn’t give her my sub sandwich or my cookies from lunch. Sometimes she followed me part of the way home and bumped my shoulder just trying to scare me.
I admit at the time being afraid of “the black girls.” But looking back, they didn’t have it as well as I did, so they took it out on kids like me; very shy, very wimpy and nervous. White. She never actually beat me up, I never gave her a chance. I could run fast!
I knew there were tensions between whites and blacks, but it wasn’t a big part of my world. My father had a deep tan, being half-Indian from India, and had an Indian British accent which made it clear he was “not from around here.” People always asked, “where are you from?” He didn’t like being “different.” He wore long sleeve shirts and pants to the beach, topped off with a ridiculous wide brimmed hat– all to avoid getting any darker than he already was. I never thought about it at the time. I thought it was weird he was so worried about getting darker when I would have LOVED to be able to tan!
When we made our pilgrimages to Mississippi every couple of years to see my mother’s relatives, I noticed things. My uncles and aunts used the “N” word which was a word I knew was bad, even then. My Mom was worried what her relatives would say if they found out my brother was dating “a black girl” back home. We tried not to talk about it while we were there. But I was still free enough to be naive about the intensity of racism, both down there and in my own middle class neighborhood. For a couple of years before they moved to a new building, I had to walk through the “west side” to get to middle school. My friends and I walked together, and at times I remember feeling scared. To be fair, I was scared because my brother had attended that school 7 years before me and had had knives pulled on him on the play ground.
We didn’t talk about race or color or class growing up in my family. Being a student of history, I read now about things that were going on in Mississippi in the 1970s while we were blissfully eating watermelon and boiled peanuts in my uncle’s front yard on summer nights. I didn’t know why the “N” word was a bad word, I just knew it was. I don’t remember asking my parents about what I watched in “Roots”– we weren’t that kind of family. But I do remember it made my stomach ache. At the time, of course, I didn’t know that my ancestors fought in the Confederate war, that they owned slaves, or that some of them were actually slave traders. (Thankyouverymuch, Ancestry.com!) If I’d known when I watched “Roots” what roles my ancestors played in the slave trade, I would have been very confused. I would have had a lot of questions!
As I do now.
We didn’t talk about unpleasant things growing up. I think part of that was my mother being a southern woman. You don’t talk about those things. Confusing things. Or things that don’t jive with the image of Walton’s Mountain or Little House on the Prairie. One could say maybe we talk about it TOO much now, but I do wonder, is there any such thing? Clearly, talking about it doesn’t seem to change it a lot.
I admit that I have lived a lot of my life thinking that we’d gotten better. It’s easy for me to say that, of course. I was free to ignore a lot. I learned about the 60s and the riots and the race wars and felt glad I didn’t grow up then, that I was a toddler the year MLK and JFK and RK were all assassinated. I grew up in a better time, surely.
I was at a pastor’s conference during Obama’s inauguration in 2009, but I stole away from meetings to watch his swearing in. I could have fallen to my knees while watching, I was so overcome with the “miracle” of his becoming president. I saw all the crowds in DC, the weeping African Americans, the joy and history of that day. I felt it, and I was proud of America. I had no idea about the intensity of the backlash that was to come, the strengthening of white supremacist groups and neo-Nazis. I heard about things, but it wasn’t until the rise of Trump that I was shocked into seeing it.
Then George Floyd. Breona Taylor. And many, many others.
The Proud Boys.
You know the list of eye-opening events over the last four years.
Then January 6th, 2021.
I couldn’t feel. I stared at the screen for hours. It wasn’t until the next day that I fell apart. I cried and cried and cried. I felt like I’d never stop crying. I don’t even know what all I was grieving in those tears. I did grieve the loss of my innocent trust that we had done better since 1968. That we were better. The loss of my image of the United States as that shining city on a hill where people can flee terror in their own countries and come here to be safe. My father didn’t flee terror, but a troubled India that was trying to figure out independence itself. He described many times the emotion of being on the boat that drew closer to the Statue of Liberty, discovering his new home.
I grieved for my country that I am proud of for being a place that people come seeking a new opportunity. This is not supposed to be who we are. The realization that as a white middle class person I have had the luxury of being naive for much of my life.
I grieved for the Church that raised me as I saw signs of “Jesus is my Savior/Trump”. Or crosses being held up as some sign of token of superiority. I grieved and got angry that people storming the Capitol to vandalize, kidnap, take hostages or even kill, dared to carry identification as Christians.
I have no doubt Jesus wept that day too.
I guess all I can say now is that I don’t understand. I truly do not understand how anyone can hate someone else that they don’t know just because of their skin color. I, who grew up relying on the Golden Rule as my mantra through childhood before I studied deeper, can’t understand wanting to do violence against anyone, especially against someone who never did anything against me. I can’t begin to get into the mindset of that kind of hate. That’s not to say I’ve never hated anyone. I don’t want to hate anyone, but I tell you I struggled with my hate against Trump, and still do. He hurts me in the soul. Because he represents everything that I am against and that I believe Jesus is against. I find him offensive, immoral, cruel, narcissistic, devoid of compassion or any kind of emotion toward anyone but himself, and blinded by his wealth. I have hated him for how he’s given permission for this kind of hate and violence to show itself out in the open and be celebrated and empowered.
But I just don’t understand hating someone I don’t even know at all, because they speak a different language, participate in another religion, or have a different color skin.
I guess I don’t want to understand. Because I don’t want to be that kind of person. Ever. I’m far from perfect, and I have my “issues” and I have a list of things in myself I’d like to improve, but I hope that I never lose hope that we can do better as a people. That the shock of January 6th will make us so disgusted by what we saw that we strive to do what we can to do better, be better, to learn more, grow more, and just be the kind of persons we try to teach our children to be.