Like many of you, I have spent quarantine time cleaning up and organizing things long-past due. One of those is a box of pictures I have carried with me to six different homes. I’m a product of the days when one blew through rolls of Kodak film, then checked the box for double prints at the store, only to discover that half the pictures were overexposed. You can imagine that going through twenty years of memories has been an undertaking and I’ve moved quickly to pitch and toss. But when I laid eyes on my third grade class picture, I stopped. Not one person of color smiled back at me from the photo, or any of my elementary school classes as best I can remember. My small Kentucky town was overwhelmingly white.
When I think back on my own childhood and young adult years growing up in the South, I can recall conversational and experiential undertones that I now recognize as privilege, white supremacy and racist epithets.
That third grade year, a classmate told me that God turned Noah’s son’s skin black after he defiled his father post-flood. “Look it up,” she said matter of factly, “it’s right there in the Bible.” I went home to thumb through the familiar flood story in Genesis, pouring over the verses for some evidence of her claim. The apparent sin of dark skin was something I never mentioned to my parents or Sunday school teachers, but her assertion stuck with me because she was so confident of it.
In high school, one of my friends began dating an African American kid in our grade. He was funny, good looking and outgoing, and I understood why she found him charming. Problem was, her dad didn’t think this was a good idea. At all. My friend made a few attempts to continue dating her boyfriend on the down low, but seeing as how her father was a high school coach—instructing and mentoring young men with the very skin color he forbid his daughter to date—he always found out. She wasn’t the only friend whose family gave the “stick with your own race” talk. There were many more.
When I graduated high school, I had very little knowledge of our country’s history, and certainly had never studied slavery or Civil Rights in depth. In fact, the only educator I really remember covering the topics was my 7th grade history teacher, Ms. Brunker, who had the unique gift of explaining current events by looking to the past.
Armed with ignorance, I set off for college—a small, Christian liberal arts school about 30 minutes from where I grew up. A world I had not known opened up for me there; history and culture; art and great literary works. I was a good student, didn’t skip classes, and joined a sorority in the spring. I loved that school and still do. I met my husband there and we were married on the library staircase in 2005.
My freshman year, I began hanging out at the fraternity home of the Fine Southern Gentlemen from the Kappa Alpha Order. Founded just down the road from where I live now in Virginia, the K.A.’s revered their heritage, and stayed true to the ideals of their spiritual founder, General Robert E Lee. Confederate flags draped many bedroom windows in the house—most likely to keep light out in the mornings—and a bust of the General stood on the mantle in the lobby. Curiously, the Resident Director of the K.A. house was an African American man who, no doubt, saw and heard much, but stayed his post all four years I was a student there.
I wore a Confederate flag bandana in my hair my sophomore year at a fall party (I found that picture in my garage too), and I secretly wanted to be invited to attend the “Old South” ball where fraternity members, uniformed as confederate soldiers, would slowly push a canon up the sidewalk around our mostly Greek quad to pick up their “rose.” The girls, dressed in antebellum attire—frilly dresses and hoop skirts—were serenaded on the steps by their dates and whisked away to the plantation-style ball.
I want to be very clear and tell you that I saw nothing abnormal about this. Nothing. The year was 2000. I had no hesitation at all about donning the Confederate flag or watching with envy as many of my friends left for Old South. The assertion that the meaning behind these things was deeply charged in white supremacy was not in my periphery. But just because I am coming to grips with my privilege now at nearly 40 years old doesn’t excuse the offense.
I told my children about these experiences recently—the black sin I had been told was in the Bible, the friend in high school whose parents forbid she date outside her race, the Confederate flag bandana I wore and for which I have picture proof—and they were horrified.
“You did that, Mom?” my 13-year-old asked.
White friends, you have experiences like these. I know you do. And they shape you, these moments. They define what equality and inclusivity look like to you, and your basic biases about race. They are there. They are. They may be unconscious. They are certainly learned. They are reinforced in the world around you every day.
Every. Single. Day.
We who do not know what it is to be a person of color have so much to unlearn. To relearn.
This requires humility. Humility not to deflect. Or excuse. Or try to flatten the prevalence of individual and systemic racism in America.
I’m not sure if my alma mater still allows plantation-style balls or Confederate flags on campus, though something in my gut tells me no. Or, at least, surely not. I’m certain there are white parents who still bristle or outright forbid a child to date outside their race. I know someone, somewhere is still teaching their daughter that the curse of Noah’s son, Ham, is the explanation for the black race and the justification for slavery.
I don’t know how to dismantle the systems that continue to oppress and dominate.
I’m not sure if we’ll get into every white supremacist’s living room in America to tell families that the people they inherently find inferior, genetically speaking, are 99.9% the same as them.
I do know that I won’t stand by to watch and cluck my tongue while fellow image bearers of God are gunned down by vigilantes in Mississippi or asphyxiated by police officers in Minnesota.
I don’t know where you stand, but I’m finished “watching whiteness work” and ready to be part of a solution.