You had better believe I learned to be racist in the South, and as soon as I figured out what troubled me–you’d better believe I unlearned it, too.
I grew up in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, with parents who loved me. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had access to music lessons, dance lessons, sports teams and braces. Everyone assumed we would go to college, have good jobs and families, and we had no reason to believe that path would be anything other than wide open to us. My brothers and I were popular, with lots of friends, and we had a privileged upbringing though I didn’t understand that until I traveled and saw what entire communities and countries in economic depression looked like.
We went to an affluent church where I was baptized in Christ in the 6th grade, and though it took, I never internally identified myself as a Christian. I didn’t feel any kinship with other Christians as a group though I connected with Jesus’s teachings of kindness and, through his story, was able to see myself as a child of a living God that I didn’t understand. My mother, especially, sought for our moral instruction, and she was diligent about my constant consideration of others although this wasn’t a hard lesson for me, being naturally empathic and prone to heightened sensitivity. Witnessing any sort of cruelty was likely to break my mind in two, and I had a long history of mysterious bouts of silent screaming and sticking up for people and animals.
I say this to you because you don’t have to be a cross-burning, gun-wielding maniac driven to murder to participate in the system of racism that continues to work in the South because it is a system of thought passed down from adults to children. Of course, it’s not in the South only, but all over the country. I keep my comments to the American South because that is my place, the one I know and love best, the people and places I have studied and written about, and I believe I can shed some light on this terrible revival of racial terrorism that is the undeniable reality of American life.
I am, constantly it feels right now, consumed with a silent scream.
The pinnacle of my racist life happened at a closed meeting of white, well-respected mothers and daughters in Rocky Mount sometime around 1989. Our long-standing debutante club, the Sub-Debs, disbanded for reasons I can’t recall, and we’d assembled to create a new social club for the high schoolers of our ilk, invitation only, three dances a year by each grade. We named it the Junior Sorority.
We had two progressive mothers in the bunch who thought we should include black girls.
“No,” I said. “I vote no. There will not be black girls in this club.”
Mind you, this is only a few years before Bill Clinton is elected. Jim Crow laws have been abolished for more than thirty years, slavery is some 120 years in the past, and the public schools have been integrated for a generation. I was 15 years old.
“Marlowe, why? Why does it matter?” This from one of the progressive moms.
“Because they have their own club. They can stay there. All we have to do is invite one, and then it’ll be another, and then they’ll take over. And it won’t be ours anymore. No.”
The progressive mothers tried to counter, but I was more fanatical, and louder, and truthfully most everyone else wanted what I wanted so we adjourned. The Junior Sorority, like the Sub-Debs before it, stayed all white.
Was I really racist? Or just prejudiced? What if I was merely “culturally ignorant”? What if I was only exercising my right to private membership?
No, I was racist. And in a very subtle, seemingly innocuous way, I toed the thought line of white supremacy in that gathering even though I had no idea what I was doing at the time. I didn’t know I was a part of the system. I would have told you I wasn’t prejudiced; I had black friends at school, I spoke out against the “n” word, I didn’t laugh at jokes about killing black people, which happened regularly in my middle class, mannered, public school childhood.
Let’s review my argument: All we have to do is invite one, and then it’ll be another, and then they’ll take over. And it won’t be ours anymore.
They’ll take over, and it won’t be ours anymore.
This is how white supremacy thought works in America. It really is that simple though the psychological complexities of race that include ideas of ownership, entitlement, sexual fear, abusive racial co-dependency formed during plantation dynamics, and enmeshed ideas of me-as-not-you make trying to simplify understanding race relations in the American South a maddening exercise in deconstruction.
However, it is very easy to understand that if you hold this belief, like I did, then you are a part of the racist system. People will continue to be shot as long as there are Americans who participate in the thought system, even if they themselves never pull any triggers.
At 15, I was smart, top of my class, yet all I knew was that tiny eastern North Carolina world, and, for me, it wasn’t a very nice one. I could no more tell you how my own mind and emotions worked than I could explain algebra. Looking back, as an adult, it’s much easier to connect the dots.
I started out not knowing blacks were any different from me. Once I got to school things changed. I came home from preschool one day to announce to our black maid (in the late 70s) that I didn’t like black people. I learned to think black people were different because I wasn’t allowed to dress like them in kindergarten even when I wanted to. I made a best friend in school, she was black, I wasn’t allowed to spend the night at her house. “Don’t lick your ice cream cone,” I was told. “Bite it. Black people lick ice cream.” And I will never forget hearing a joke about the pending MLK federal holiday, the old one about shooting four more. Then we’d get the whole week off. Compound these messages over 15 years, and you’ll see how easy it is to grow a racist, even if that isn’t your intention.
Black people “can’t get over it” because it’s not over. If it was over, the murder of the congregants at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church could not have happened. We can no longer deny that there aren’t many other Dylann Roofs being manufactured in the South, in our own families, because of our racial history and the continued underground oral history of disgust for black people that is passed down from adults to children.
If there was no direct antidote in a young person’s life to racism where I grew up, you grew up racist. You can make Jim Crow illegal all day and all night, but you can’t stop the white oral history. You can’t stop the fear with laws. You can’t stop the hatred born by fear by forbidding behavior. All of that goes underground, where it festers, and towards the end of the administration of America’s first black president, a Millennial terrorist erupts in a black church with the same damn rhetoric white men used to burn economically successful black towns after the Civil War. The. Same. Damn. Words.
If you extend this line of “this is ours/they will take over” thinking to its violent conclusion–which we all know has been acted out generation after generation in American history–you end up in an AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. You end up with scads of Americans who chant about “taking our country back” and yet never do anyone the courtesy of explaining from what, or whom, or when, exactly, they had possession of the country in the first place. The tricky, poisonous insanity of having a mind bent with racist beliefs is that the person infected usually doesn’t know it, can’t explain how he or she got that way, denies any responsibility for creating the society in which we live. The extreme examples, like Dylann Roof, act on the system of beliefs; he tries, impotently, with a gun, in a church, to take his country back. But for every Dylann Roof, there are many more less violent people stoking the fires of white supremacy: an Obama nigger joke here, a coon and spook epithet there, evenings spent with wine and well-off white friends railing about how “those people” need to “quit complaining, slavery is in the past, pull yourself up with a bootstrap” and being disgusted about how black folk just can’t seem to get it together as a people.
When I speak of racism in America, it’s rooted in my personal experience, and I happen to have a lot. I’m related to a fair number of racists. All of them are not college educated; some of them are very sweet and kind in all other ways, generous and compassionate. A few racist people I know have PhDs, and they’re not racist, they’re just “sick of black people wanting something for nothing” as they watch news coverage of riots but don’t spend time with any living, breathing, thinking, feeling, black people.
Let’s face it, if there had been any “American justice,” the macho, eye-for-an-eye warmongering nonsense that has become normal by now, every slave owning white family would have been murdered in the cotton and tobacco fields in 1865. Every “Negroes are, by nature, inferior to whites” congressman and scientist would have hung from boughs, predictable fruits, along the Washington Mall at the turn of the 20th century.
Deep down in the Southern subconscious, we know the score was never settled. The land is still haunted here. We walk among ghosts. We walk in fear of black people because there was never any retaliation for what we know, in our hearts, deserved it. The wound, as we’ve come to acknowledge it in the literature after the Charleston massacre, was never nationally tended to, dressed, cleaned, no healing salve applied. Let’s be honest: there’s a very real, serious reason why justice is such a volatile topic when it comes to race in America. It has a root cause that is not very hard to understand. There’s no consistent, historical record for systemic fair treatment of people of color.
Normal, “boys will be boys” behaviors my brothers did as teenagers would, had they been black, gotten them locked up. Usually, the cops just brought them home and had a quiet talk with my parents. The end. As an alcoholic female, I have no clue what would have happened to me had I been a black woman; I love my support group, and I’ve been to a ton of meetings in lots of places in the US, and I’ll tell you one thing I hardly ever see is a black woman. Where are they? Prison?
As has always been true in America, normal everyday working Americans are dying because we are ravaged by trickle-down fear that manifests in our minds as an Us-And-Them way of thinking that rationalizes murder.
The struggle to end racial violence is our struggle as Americans. It is a national struggle rooted in the formation of this false democracy. American society is currently in a state of collapse because the false democracy could never sustain itself; people are afraid because the great American experiment resulted in a corrupt political system co-dependent on business interests with a largely sick and willfully uneducated populace oblivious to their own responsibility to each other as citizens of the same country.
I loved a black girl. In tenth grade. Her name was Danielle.
The power of caring for her was stronger than the power of the messages of separation, so I grew up. Already my education was opening doors in my brain, and my common sense returned as I pored over photographs of the slave trade, of plantation life, and examined the language of slavery that reduced people to terms of property.
I loved her the same way I loved my other sister friends. There was no separation.
One day, in AP History class we were talking about race relations in America. Our high school, majority black, She turned to me.
“Hey,” she said. “What color are you?”
It took me a second to understand the question. “Same as you,” I said.
We stared at each other a moment to make sure the other knew what we were really saying. Satisfied, she turned around. I distinctly had a sensation of expanding.
Danielle had just taught me what it felt like to beat the system. We had overcome.
Fear is easier than forgiveness. And, it’s hard to love when you’re scared. That’s why violence continues but never wins. Only love wins. I didn’t come up with this idea. I learned it by walking through fear. I learned it by having to forgive people who hurt me. The reason I don’t terrorize other people and teach the children in my life to hate women, or men, or brown people is because my fear doesn’t own me.
Love owns me.
For the family members of the slain Americans praying in Charleston, please know there are many of us who can not abide the prevailing, desperate measures taken by people clamoring for the ways that created this collapsing system, and we are watching you forgive.
If the South must rise again, may it be from your example as elevated Americans. We stand with you.
night night beloveds.
Addendum: June 10, 2020–Author’s Note about Forgiveness in Light of Recent Events and More Learning about Her Own Racism
The current situation–a nation in protest over the public murders of African American citizens Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd–two of which were filmed and broadcast on social media–caused a white friend to reach out to me about reposting and resharing this blog. At her request and earnest belief that it will help other white folks better understand why anti-racism work isn’t just socially responsible it’s going to SAVE THE LIVES of our black and brown neighbors, I have honored her request.
That being said, today I wouldn’t write, as a white person, about black people and forgiveness. In the years since I posted this blog, I’ve followed several social media conversations among my black friends and peers, so I’ve come to understand it as a topic within the black community as a private, inter-community conversation about choice–choice on how to (or how not to) respond to the terrorism and trauma of systemic and institutional racism. I won’t re-write the title or conclusion because I think part of being accountable as a white woman unlearning racism is to be real about letting people look at the process. It’s not pretty, but we must face the truth.