On that day in 1987 (and, yes, this happened), the mother yelled out to her child, “Don’t let that nigger beat you.”
This was 1987 in the good ol’ US of A. To the best of my knowledge, nobody said anything to the mother. The comment went without reaction and not a soul came to the defense of the little child who bore the brunt of the racial epithet as he tried to simply play a game with other children.
Over two decades after this happened, I asked the white boy from the game what happened after the shout. He said, “I don’t know. My mother knows what she said was wrong and she’s ashamed of it now.”
As a woman of color, I know firsthand how it feels to be called derogatory names based on nothing more than eye shape or skin tone and how damaging, horrible and long-lasting those kinds of words can be. Whoever said words can never hurt you was just…wrong. I pushed back, “But didn’t you apologize to the other soccer player? Did your mom apologize to him? To his mom?” The man was surprised by the questions. “I don’t think so,” he said. “That kid’s parents may not have even been there. Some kids walked to those games without their parents.”
This made my heart sink even more. A child, under the age of 10, walks alone, to go play a game, where he is subject to a racial taunt by an adult. “Did you look him up later?” I persisted. ‘What did you DO?” The man had had enough of my interrogation. He snapped, “No. I didn’t do anything wrong. I was a little kid. I never said anything bad to anyone. She said it and she’s sorry and it was a long time ago and we moved on. Why are you judging me?”
This is very typical of many white people that I know and – full disclosure – I am half white and this is something I see among my friends and my family, people who are good to me and who I love. What I see is white people patting themselves on the back for recognizing to themselves, privately, that calling a small child a “nigger” is wrong. Patting themselves on the back for refraining from using a racial epithet to describe someone of a different skin color who annoys them or just happens to exist. People who think it’s enough to just “move on” without apologizing or, well, atoning. And if you call them on it, they become defensive and focused on themselves – that they are being attacked or judged – not on the actual bad act itself or the real victim of that bad act.
“Moving on” and not repeating that kind of bad act is not enough.
What is needed is atonement.
Whites, particularly, need to atone and, before all of them freak out on me, I am not talking about giving up their homes or money or lives. I am talking about taking small, constructive actions in their daily lives that they undertake as a conscious effort to make up for past wrongdoing. I am talking about consciously using their “white privilege” to help others who don’t have that same kind of leeway in everyday life.
The history of slavery and discrimination in this country has left deep scars and wounds that still bleed. Simply ignoring those wounds and saying, “Move on” will just result in more blood loss, literally and figuratively. Too many white people openly embrace the cultural relics of a history seeped with atrocities from the Confederate flag to Colonel Reb at Ole Miss. When they do that, they say they are not embracing the history of slavery that they refuse to admit is inextricably intertwined with these symbols – much like the Nazi flag is now inextricably intertwined with the genocide committed against the Jewish people – and instead say they are celebrating Southern culture and heritage. They fail to note it’s a celebration of only one aspect of Southern culture and heritage – one of slavery, domination, abuse, and violence. No decent human being should be celebrating that. A decent human being would be ashamed of that history and would take constructive action to eliminate the after effects and to prevent it from happening again.
To me, when whites display the Confederate flag, they are advertising racism or, at best, extreme ignorance. It’s analogous to a German displaying the Nazi flag and saying it’s not because they’re anti-Semitic, it’s because they’re celebrating German history. Mmm hmm. Just a TAD disingenuous.
If you are not racist and if you are a good person, you recognize the bad things your culture and your society did and you take action to make it better. You don’t have to be an activist attending rallies every weekend but you should do what you can do. And just refraining from calling people awful names and patting yourself on the back for your restraint does not count. You get no points for that.
I am ashamed of the Confederate flag and what it represents. I think it is something to study in a history book and learn from in an effort not to repeat the same mistakes. I certainly do not suggest celebrating it or decorating with it anymore than I would celebrate or decorate with a Nazi swastika.
Between 1877 and 1950, almost 4,000 blacks were lynched during a reign of racial terror perpetrated by whites against blacks in the southern United States. If you’re white, imagine the races were reversed and your race had been the victim of systemic racial terror over years and years and the blacks insisted on keeping all the vestiges and symbols of those “good days” and told you to “get over it.” Can you do it?
In 2011, “Only two of the six Democrat and Republican governor hopefuls [said] they would consider moving the Confederate flag” … “in front of the South Carolina Statehouse.” It took a white racist shooting and killing nine black people, in 2015, while attending a bible study session in South Carolina, to get some officials to call for South Carolina to remove the confederate flag from South Carolina license plates. Really? Nine people have to be killed in cold blood in a racially motivated attack to talk about taking down a representation of a history of racial violence?
Since 9/11, white right-wing terrorists have killed almost twice as many Americans in homegrown attacks than radical Islamists have. Police violence against blacks and others of color remains a serious and systemic problem. The deck is stacked against people of color in this country. And just because we had a (half) black President doesn’t mean we’re in the clear (obviously – a candidate endorsed by the KKK succeeded him!). What it means is that certain people are so exceptional they will rise to the top no matter what. But for all us “normal” people, life may not be so easy.
It’s 2017 and the country remains embroiled in racism. We have a racist, sexist, xenophobic president and the normalization of racism and xenophobia is back on the rise. What does a decent person do?
Flags and other symbols aside, what about atonement? Let’s go back to the woman and the children and that soccer game in 1987. What about looking up that kid and saying sorry now? With the power and reach of social media, her odds of finding him aren’t actually that impossible.
Why not do it? Lazy? Scared? Embarrassed?
Or, what about taking some small action to help a similarly situated child since you can’t take it back and help that child from long ago anymore? What about atoning in an active, constructive manner?
All of us have something – most of us have many things – we could atone for. There are many ways to atone. Sometimes, you cannot do it directly. For example, maybe the woman can’t find the child anymore. However, that doesn’t mean she should simply “move on.” Thinking practically, creatively and outside of the box about ways to do this in ways that suit our particular personalities and talents would make far better use of our free time than just shoving old bad deeds under the rug and congratulating ourselves for not repeating them. Is she a teacher? Could she provide some gratis tutoring for a similarly situated youth? What about volunteering in other ways? Showing active and open support of diversity initiatives? How can she use her particular skills to make life better for others in some small but measurable way? Loudly and proudly insisting upon the removal of symbols of the reign of racial terror in the US to her political representatives?
People should hold themselves accountable. Acknowledgement of a wrong deed is a first step but it’s not enough if we’re ever going to come together. There must be atonement.
A Quick History of Slavery in America
“Slavery in America began when the first African slaves were brought to the North American colony of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, to aid in the production of such lucrative crops as tobacco. Slavery was practiced throughout the American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries, and African-American slaves helped build the economic foundations of the new nation. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 solidified the central importance of slavery to the South’s economy. By the mid-19th century, America’s westward expansion, along with a growing abolition movement in the North, would provoke a great debate over slavery that would tear the nation apart in the bloody American Civil War (1861-65). Though the Union victory freed the nation’s 4 million slaves, the legacy of slavery continued to influence American history, from the tumultuous years of Reconstruction (1865-77) to the civil rights movement that emerged in the 1960s, a century after emancipation.”
3,959 black people were killed in “racial terror lynchings” in a dozen Southern states between 1877 and 1950.
White on black violence remains a serious issue in the United States. 62 percent of young black people are more afraid of violence from “white extremists” than from ISIS.
Last, but not least, this isn’t just a black and white issue and, in addressing racism in this country, we also have to come face to face with the genocide and continued marginalization and abuse of the Native Americans, as well as the history of racism and abuse against other people of color – Asian Americans, etc. – and women. There’s a lot of bad stuff out there, however, if we acknowledge, try to understand, open ourselves up to others who are different from us and, where we have done wrong, try to practically, constructively and creatively “atone,” then I think we will all be ok…some day.