I recently listened to, I'm Still Here, Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown. Immediately, I thought of Natalie.
I imagined this book being written by her; a letter of tough love and a call to action addressed to her white best friend.
Let me rewind. I met Natalie in my kindergarten class at five years old. I was attending a predominantly white, Catholic school that my family had been attending pretty much since its existence. My parents raised my sister, brother and me in the downstairs apartment of my grandparents' house and my mother's childhood home for most of my life. Catholic school was at times, out of our budget, but my parents made sacrifices and worked tirelessly. I played sports and joined the Girl Scouts just like all of the other kids. I never felt different.
Natalie was the only black girl in our grade... and possibly in our school. She was my best friend. I don't remember a lot from my early school years, but I do remember that Natalie was my best friend. Our friendship was innocent and wholehearted, as only a kindergarten friendship could be. I thought she was beautiful with her braids and barrettes and her dark skin. We were both tall, we lost our teeth at the same time, as most five-year-olds do. We made each other laugh and played together at recess. Our similarities connected us in the purest way. Our differences, which we could both see, were differences that I admired. I would go home and tell my mother about Natalie. I wanted to be beautiful like Natalie. I would innocently ask to do my hair in those beautiful braids and barrettes, but at five years old, I couldn't begin to understand why that wasn't possible.
I am going to pause and tell you that this post is a difficult one to write. Trying to put these thoughts and feelings into words and into a space with permanence is challenging, but humbling. This post and these thoughts are the ones that made me want to start this blog in the first place, but I apologize if it is difficult to follow. I think I'm still piecing it together, myself. I invite you to walk through it with me; to open your mind and your heart. To entertain the conversation in the hope of learning and empathizing, because I don't believe growth happens until we feel it... until we feel empathy for another human being.
Our parents, raising kids in the '80s and '90s, were taught to be "color blind." A term that when broken down, quite literally means to ignore color. The perception was that everyone was "equal," and that we are all the same; as if someone took a bulldozer to the playing field and it had now been leveled - that there was no more "separate," only "equal."
Being color blind made white people feel "good" and most importantly, that they were not racist. We all want to be "good" and who wants to be racist? I believe that the intention was good, but ignorance is not bliss; it's actually dangerous, and it's hurtful to those who are left in the blind spot.
I am often reminded of a story from when I was very young, maybe two or three. My mother and I were entering an elevator and she tensed up as we approached a black mother and baby, fearful of her uncensored, white toddler. The door closed and I looked up at the mother and said, "you have a beautiful black baby." Children don't have blind spots. My vision was clear. That child was black and was beautiful - but I acknowledged it - and that breaks the rules of color blindness.
This is something my mind has been trying to process for a long time, but it wasn't until COVID-19 forced us to stay home and take off our blinders that my heart and my head landed on the same page. Like much of America, when I saw George Floyd murdered on TV, my heart crumbled. I watched Ahmaud Arbery be gunned down and thought of all the times my mother told me not to run after dark. But, this was broad daylight... no blind spots. And then George Floyd.. on camera, in broad daylight... no blind spots. No one was pretending to not see color. No one was blind.
How have we allowed this to remain "normal?" How did we feel better not knowing or seeing? Entitlement. Privilege. Fragility. Whatever you want to call it... We don't have the right to be color blind.... and we can't be too fragile to see reality. We can't be blind to our mistakes, the misinformation or lack of education we've been given... and even neglected to listen to. We can't be blind to the fact that there is a need to do better.
Generations have a funny tendency to resent one another - especially the ones that come after them - seeing them as ungrateful, lacking values, and work ethic. Ironically, each generation typically works toward the goal of having their children start off with better financial and educational footing. We work to give our children a better life and hope they do better than we did. So, why do we resent the generation that we raise when they challenge the status quo? The generation that we supposedly want to do better.
On the flip side of the generational coin, younger generations tend to point fingers and blame. We are fortunate to have had more access to information and education than past generations did. We knew better, sooner; and with that knowledge comes responsibility. I encourage my generation, myself included to have more empathy when trying to make a point. To lead by example, with love and compassion.
To both generations: admitting wrongdoing doesn't mean you are not "good." It actually means the opposite. It means you are so good that you want to be better. You want to fix mistakes... learn and grow. Admitting a mistake and sharing your story allows someone else to bypass that mistake. It provides not just better financial and educational footing for the next generation but a better moral footing. That is a gift.
Back to Natalie. I imagine what our friendship would be like today; how much we would still have in common. I wonder what our friendship might have been if the world around us allowed us to maintain our perfect vision. I am telling you that Natalie was my best friend, but she wasn't at my birthday party and I wasn't at hers. We never went to each other’s houses to play. In fact, she left our school the following year.
To my black friends, my black colleagues, and acquaintances: I promise to do my best to be an active ally. I promise to continue to learn, listen, and grow, but I also promise to extend a hand and hold the door open where I can. I acknowledge and understand that despite the fact that my family was not wealthy... despite the fact that we lived in the downstairs apartment of my grandparents' house, and I was the first in my immediate family to graduate college, that I was also white. I had a headstart and other doors were open for me. I "fit the part" and could "fake it till I made it." I was assumed worthy until I proved otherwise; and even if I did prove otherwise, I was given another chance.
To my white family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances: I don't post this in judgment. I empathize with you but challenge you to look within your heart and question your own beliefs, whatever they may be. We were taught wrong - our parents were too - and it is ok to step back, re-evaluate, listen, learn, and grow. It doesn't mean sacrificing "your seat" or "your place." It might feel like you are giving away some of your power, but that's ok. No one should want that power. I encourage you to have challenging conversations... to ask questions and gain a new perspective.
We learn a lot of lessons as kindergarteners that we forget as adults. The Golden Rule - to treat one another as we would like to be treated. It is something so simple that transcends religions and cultures, and yet when the idea of change makes us uncomfortable or we feel threatened, we leave people in our blind spots to protect ourselves.
To Natalie, I'd like to believe that given the chance, we still would have been the best of friends. That a book like I'm Still Here would have prompted the most powerful of conversations; deepening our friendship and bringing perspective and understanding to so many people. Maybe we would have fought over what Barbies we wanted to play with or who was going to take the lead in the talent show dance and our friendship would have fizzled out anyway. But maybe you left school after Kindergarten because you were in the blind spot, and for that I am sorry.