Monday was fresh and the morning sun was warm; however, it felt as though a thick, wool blanket covered the late-summer sky. The weekend had been one, big oxymoron, filled with the sweet company of my entourage and enveloped by a suffocating cloud of hate. You know how the story unfolded -- white supremacists rallied, a counter-protester was killed, our nation’s original sin reared its blistered, pus-filled head.
I poured my coffee, sat down and attempted to pull my computer out of its shell. The coffee’s steam billowed around my face and was the closest thing to peace I felt. My heart does this thing when it’s heavy. It constricts and breaks into uneven chunks, traveling to my left collar bone, throat and stomach. It’s painful--very painful. I finally managed to make eye contact with Erica. And the broken chunks of my heart began to move, fast.
“Erica, you know that feeling you get when someone says something nasty to you or about you?” I asked as someone had thrown an unkind word toward me that same weekend. She looked at me with tired, defeated eyes, and replied, “Yes. Yes, I do. It’s called racism. It’s everyday for me.”
The piece of heart in my throat began to swell with a myriad of emotions. Of course she knew what it felt like. I felt like a rag doll being tossed around in a wave of humiliation, trying to find my breath and the words to say next.
“Erica, I don’t understand why people do that. I don’t understand. You and I are the same. I don’t see you as being different from me,” I said with conviction and ignorance. She locked eyes with me, sighed and laughed in such a way to say, “Oh, Taylor. Sweet, Sweet Taylor.” I sat there patiently waiting for her words. What graciously flowed from her mouth next took everything I was taught and set it ablaze.
“Taylor, we aren’t the same. We will never be the same,” she replied. “And, until you start to recognize that, things will remain as they are.”
The piece of my heart in my stomach began to swell with confusion and shame. For the first time in my life, I looked at my white privilege in its very white face and I was uncomfortable. I began to panic, and did what I do best when I panic -- search for a solution.
Knowing that my church was hosting the Racial Equity Institute training in October, I emailed my pastor to make sure I had a spot in the class. All I knew was that I could no longer sit across from Erica and my other black friends acting as though I was woke. Little did I know that I was indirectly adding to the cycle of racism by saying, “But, we are all made in God’s image,” or, “I don’t see black or white. I see the person.” In reality, I was putting on blinders that prevented me from seeing the truth.
The weekend of the REI training turned my world upside down. In two days, the instructors shed light on the realities of the systemic racism in the United States. I bled my pen dry as I furiously filled an entire legal pad with notes. It felt next to impossible to wrap my brain around the sheer fact that all of my white friends, no matter their socio-economic status, and myself were all given a head start because of our skin color. The black man who fought alongside a white man in WWII didn't benefit from the G.I. Bill. Realtors wouldn’t sell houses to people of color after the war because they said a black family would decrease a white community’s property value. I felt rage. I felt sadness. I felt more rage. I wanted to punch something.
When the first day ended, I ran out of Church on Morgan like a bat out of hell. I couldn’t dial Erica’s phone number fast enough because my hands were shaking. She answered the phone and said, “Soo?” Verbal vomit came next. “ERICA! ARE YOU KIDDING ME? I hate white people, including myself!” I screamed as I walked toward Wine Authorities. She said with a gentle chuckle, “Taylor, I’m going to need you to calm down. You can't go at this like a wrecking ball.” She was right, but I was ready to go into the arena with my fists up.
Before I had a minute to settle and organize my thoughts, the second day of training rose bright and early with the sun. With my new pen in hand and fresh legal pad, I was ready to receive the hard truths that the instructors would throw at me. The truth stung even more on day two, though. At one point, I could feel my heart shatter as one man said that he never thought he would see the day when he would sit in a class with white people who wanted to know more about what life was like for him and his black family. He felt encouraged.
The instructors stopped halfway through the session to check in on us. You could cut the emotion with a knife. I swore I wouldn’t cry. I honestly didn’t think I had any tears left after the first night, but then it was my turn to share. My voice started to shake with my hands as I started to speak:
I am sad. I feel like an idiot. I’m embarrassed to say that I thought I was woke just because I surround myself with people who are champions of social justice and equality. I am sad that one day, I won’t hear the laughter of the kids who live behind me or the banter of people on their porch. They will no longer be able to live in the apartments behind my house because they will inevitably be pushed out. And, I’m so angry.
At that point, I couldn’t hold in my tears. They exploded through my eyes’ levees and they wouldn’t stop.
I am so sorry. I am so sorry. I am sorry for the sins of my fathers. I am sorry that I am just now recognizing my white privilege. I am sorry I haven’t done more. I promise you that I will try my best to educate and speak up.
My throat felt as though it was trying to push down a sack of rocks. Drying my tears and composing myself, I walked to the back of the room for some water. One of the black men from First Baptist Church stopped me and said, “It isn’t your fault. You have a good heart and you see, which is all you need.” That made me feel somewhat better, but it didn’t change the fact that I wanted to find the closest trash can to vomit.
Before the class ended, a friend asked asked what we could do as white men and women to genuinely help. One of the black men said, “What we need for you to do is for you to educate your white friends. Encourage them to take this class. That’s what we need from you. We don’t need anything else but that because we know how to survive. We’ve done it our whole lives.”
“That was it?” I thought. What I didn’t understand was that it would actually be the most difficult task of all. Why? I learned that if people don’t see and understand their white privilege, they don’t think they need to take the class. Humans don’t want to feel uncomfortable. We put up MLK quotes on MLK Day, so that’s enough, right? We have discussions with our like-minded white friends, or we attended a liberal arts university, so we’re woke, right? We work for a non-profit run by white men and women that serve the black community, so we’re making up for things. Isn’t that enough?
These were all the excuses that I subconsciously made before the class, so I knew others were making them. It wasn’t until Erica looked me in the eye on that dreary Monday in August and said, “We are not the same,” that I knew it was time I stopped walking blindly beside my friend. It was time that I made myself feel uncomfortable. It was time for me to know the whole truth and nothing but the truth of the sin that has shackled black men and women for 400 years.