I’ve tried so many times before to write about racism, but I always get to the really hard parts in my story, and my words get stuck. I was raised in a very religious home, so one might question how racism could have crept into my young life. I was born and raised in Mississippi, which of course is known for a highly spotted racial past. Racism was not a blatant part of my every day life growing up, but when extended family would get together for reunions or funerals, I heard many a racist “joke” or tirade. Even though the people in my every day life did not openly speak of such things, I do recall them all laughing along with the “jokes” or nodding sympathetically to someone’s tirade.
When I was around four or five, there was a brief period in time that I had a baby sitter named Sweetie. She was quite possibly the sweetest person I have ever met, there wasn’t a mean bone in her body. She was a family friend of one of the families in our church, and she was always willing to help out with babysitting when needed.
One day, she and I were sitting on our couch and she was helping me with my shoes. We were going outside to play in the backyard while she sat on our porch with her large colorful umbrella shading her completely.
We were laughing and talking and being silly and for some unknown reason, I lifted my curled hands to my armpits, imitating a monkey stance. “Hey Sweetie! I’m a n—-r!”
I’ll never forget the look that crossed her face. I immediately knew that I had done something terribly wrong, but I didn’t understand what that was. Every time I had heard that word before, it was in a joking sense and people using it were laughing. This time though, I was very aware that I had hurt this kind soul that I loved so much. That, I believe, is why this interaction is burned so crystal clear in my memory.
“Oh baby,” she murmured softly, “That’s not nice to say.” We went on about our day, but I could sense the change in her.
Back then, I thought she told my mom what I said simply to get me in trouble. Now that I am an adult, I realize that her telling my mom was part of a bigger picture. She had to stand up for herself and let it be known that she would not stand for that kind of treatment. Knowing that now makes me respect her even more. I didn’t see her very often after that incident, and honestly, I can’t blame her.
I did get in trouble for saying it. Maybe that’s another reason the incident is etched in my memories so firmly. Corporal punishment was the norm in my home and church, but I often look back on this incident and wonder if I was really being punished for the act itself or was I being punished because my parents were embarrassed.
To make this entire event even more embarrassing to me, it was the butt of family jokes for years to come. I always felt that the joke was more about me getting caught making a horribly racial remark to a person of color rather than what I had actually said. What my family didn’t realize was that their poking the situation made me more resolved in my mind to condemn that kind of behavior at all cost. I never felt the power to stand up to grown up relatives tossing around racial slurs at family gatherings, but I began to remove myself from the situation when I encountered it.
I finally reached my breaking point though, in a hospital waiting room less than a week before my grandfather died. It was a month before my fifteenth birthday, and I suppose I was feeling especially grown up in my own opinions about things.
An elderly great uncle of mine was sitting in the waiting room, along with various other family members. We knew that the end was near for my grandfather so all the family was coming in to pay to their last respects. My family received the best care at that hospital. It was arranged for my grandfather to be in a double room so that my grandmother would have a bed to sleep in while she stayed with him. She didn’t leave his side at all. One of the dearest nurses we had was a beautiful woman of color. She had seen a lot of death in her line of work and she always knew exactly what to do and say while we were preparing for this huge loss we were about to suffer.
She had passed in front of the waiting room several times while we were sitting there, and the elderly family member spoke up, wondering how in the world people like her were allowed to work in hospitals.
Sometimes I wish I could go back to that moment just so I can see how long my mouth was hung open before I spoke. The words tumbled out of my mouth before I could stop them. “You can’t say that! That’s racist and wrong!” No one in the room stood up with me and reinforced my words. One aunt fussed at me for speaking disrespectfully to my elders. I chose to remove myself from the situation instead of saying anything further. It had been a while since I had gotten a physical punishment, and I wasn’t keen on testing my limits. I wasn’t for sure how my parents would have acted if I had caused a scene, so I took the easy way out and didn’t cause one.
When I made the decision to leave home, I made a promise to myself that I would become friends with all types of people, no matter if I believed the same as them or not. I moved away from the South for a little while and that helped with my view on things a LOT. I began to realize how blatantly racist the things were that I had witnessed in my extended family as a child, and I had to do a lot of soul searching, especially when I thought back on my incident with dear Sweetie.
Right before I moved back to the South a decade ago, I had a friend ask me to please not move to my new city and date a bunch of black guys. Sometimes I daydream about calling her up and telling her that two out of the first three guys I dated when I moved here were men of color.
So here we are in 2017, and I still see the flickers and hear the rumblings of racism still in my family. I’m not silent about it anymore though. Want to start a fight with me? Say something racist in front of me. I swear, I feel like a bull dog in these situations.
Today, I got hit with something hard. A loved one was going through a tough time emotionally because of what seems to be some serious racist BS, and it just got me to thinking so hard about the things that we have all observed in our families and maybe even ignored. I have learned that staying silent is akin to a cancer spreading silently through a body. Once it gains enough momentum, it’s really hard to get it to stop, and it’s really hard to speak up.
My question now is, am I truly ready to stand up and address these issues head on? Or will I just sit back and be the silent good little girl I was raised to be?