A Pack of Wrigley’s Gum, A Gun, A Knee, and Murder
Feeling Disgraced as a White American: How We Are Nurtured with Lies, Conditioned to Hate, and Driven into Silence
I have written and rewritten this essay multiple times attempting to find a perfect voice for an imperfect situation. Initially, I was deeply angry. I felt helpless and personally vulnerable. Then slowly growing frustration spread like oozing lava as I attempted to find words for how I felt as a white woman, in the 21st Century, living in a country I love, surrounded by hate, divisiveness and racial slur. I was trying to unpack, bleach out the vat, with words I struggled to find. I am hopeful this aged and revised version is the better one; one that might inspire conversations. We need, as white people, to have them. We need the freedom to embrace our personal version of feeling “race disgraced” and openly admit how helpless some of us feel. All races suffer from this horrific generalization, poor attempts to explain away real problems, to smoke screen facts with things that do not matter so we can avoid the real issue that is tearing our nation apart. Somehow, together, it is up to us, as white persons to overcome our personal hesitation and enter this conversation in earnest. This essay is not meant to blame or shame people who look like me. It is instead an admission and recognition that racism is a horrid, hateful expression of our humanity. I have long fantasized about a perfect world where we can come together and confess our helplessness in a shared conversation. For those timid but courageous souls who are ready, it is my hope my experiences and perspective offer a platform that can heal rather than divide.
“Any exploration of race is inherently complex. Because personal experience cannot be erased. Every person is assigned a place within the racial landscape, and our experience of race shapes how we see what we see. In other words, life experiences are often very different depending upon one’s race, and these experiences impact how we make sense of events.” Birth of a White Nation, The Intervention of White People and Its Relevance Today (Jacqueline Battalora; 2015)
The 60’s Civil Rights Movement had quieted down by the time I became of age. By 1971, I was a single mother and working to take care of my young son. Eventually we would expand our small family from two to six. Life was busy and quite frankly I was more focused on my kids, my husband and keeping our combined family secure than I was on anything outside of it. I lived by a code of values set forth by my mother. Had I been raised by my father, that code would have been tainted. He was a fair man, and like most people today, he would say he was not racist. The fact is, he was. He was decent, just myopic and conditioned by his time when it came to his racial slurs that were offensive.
I cannot say why Travon Martin’s murder didn’t spur me to act because it sickened me. I have asked myself why it took George Floyd’s murder to move me to finally address this issue head on. Watching recorded footage of him pleading for his life was shocking, horrifying, terrifying, a reality that put me into the nightmare that so many people of color live with every day. I had not felt that kind of terror since I was ten years old. The knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck was not a television drama, one where I knew the person would get up and walk away. It was actual footage of a murder. And all for the passing of a counterfeit $20 bill. But there have been failed blinkers, joggers, kids out for a night stroll, gentle men who played violins for shelter pets that have been senselessly murdered, all based on warped beliefs that rationalize murderous intent, one built upon a millennium of lies. Lies designed to divide and conquer.
As I watched the news coverage, in between updates on the impact and spread of COVID-19, I was struck by a single news story that appeared at the height of the demonstrations. Watching news coverage one evening, the screen flashed to a video of a black family driving home from a memorial honoring one of the murdered black men. I was so shocked and unnerved by the story I have now forgotten who the family had gone to honor. There have been too many.
Small enough to need a car seat but old enough to speak clearly, a small black male child (maybe 6 or 7 years old) sat in the back seat of his parents’ SUV. With tears streaming down his face, his hands holding his tender cheeks and shaking his small head, he sobbed a stream of tears. Heaving between tormented words, he pleaded for an understanding from his parents for which there is no answer. “Why do white people want to shoot me mama?” he asked over and over. “Why, why, why?”
I felt sick to my stomach witnessing this young child, trauma rumbling through his very fragile vulnerable frame, believing his future, his very life, could so easily be ended by a white person simply because of his skin color.
I wanted to comfort and reassure him that “no, white people do not want to shoot you,” but in all consciousness I could not honestly say he was safe. In truth, there are white men and women who would shoot him. Some out of fear, others out of entitlement. I could not begin to try to explain to him that not all white people felt that way; that most white people would never hurt him. Even if I had had that kind of influence in his life, I could not take away history, or the pain his parents assuredly felt from years of systemic prejudice and abuse. Even if I could have been there, supporting his parents and BLM, I couldn’t have fixed anything. Their experience was not my own, my skin color protected me. Theirs did not. I felt a familiar rush of personal anguish and finally had words that matched how I had felt for decades.
I was in disgrace by the actions, beliefs, and hateful rhetoric of my race. I realized my silence allowed white supremacists to speak and represent me. I hated that my skin color matched theirs; I hated how their nurtured, racially reinforced superior beliefs and revolting rationalizations justified verbal abuse, physical torture, or murder. In my naive mind I had never associated with or identified with them, but it never occurred to me that in my silence they might be representing me.
I was raised in a white northern state where racism in the 50’s and 60’s was a silent undercurrent, ubiquitously present.
Our mother protected us from it. She had an uncompromised faith in everyone … until they proved her wrong. They could have been a purple people eater for all she cared; if they were good kindhearted people, who lived their life respecting others, then she embraced them wholeheartedly. Her kind heart, however, had limits; outspoken and incredibly courageous, her fiery temper could not be tamed when it came to what she saw as an injustice. To act cruelly or demean another person was certainly not something me or my sister were allowed.
It was her insistence on kindness, her outspoken nature, and her loving and all-encompassing acceptance of others that shrouded me from the undue influence of the silent but pervasive racism that was part of our Northern white culture. I was far too young to understand anything I overheard. With mom’s uncompromising love I was deaf and dumb to their message. If anything tried to leak in, she had no problem wringing the lie out of me by sharing her perspective of inclusion and acceptance of others.
The Summer of 1964 — Experiencing the South through a Child’s Eyes
I was 10, going on 11, in the summer of 1964. When mom told me we were moving, my youthful naivete was still intact. I believed in magic and angels; my Barbie doll was my favorite toy. Dad’s work at Boeing led to a job in Huntsville Alabama. In one final attempt to pull their disintegrating marriage together, our parents moved us there. Dad was assigned to work as a mechanic on the Apollo projects. We lived in an area outside Huntsville, in a small community called Lacey Springs. The aging rundown bungalow where we stayed was meant to be interim lodging while my folks looked for an apartment.
The 1964 version of Alabama I experienced was at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. I had never witnessed, in “real time,” any exposure to the extremisms or cruelty of cultural racism. Living in Lacey Springs that summer was my baptism from innocence into knowledge. While I saw the separate drinking fountains and the “reserved signs” in empty restaurants, those had a much smaller impact than one I would witness on a hot summer day.
My mother and I had walked to a small diner to escape boredom and the heat to have a soda. It was just down the hill from where we were staying, an easy walk. I remember the diner was more long than wide, with small booths on the right as you entered and a long lunch counter on the left. The register sat near the front door, at the end of the lunch counter, atop a glass case full of candy and gum. Mom and I were sitting a couple of booths back, I faced the entrance. In time, a young teenage black man came in to buy a pack of gum. The owner, an older white man, emphatically told him they were out of gum. From where I was sitting, I could see the white man was lying. I was so confused.
The young man pointed to the full display and asked again. The owner said with growing anger and irritation, I told you we are out of gum. Then the young man asked for a candy bar. Again, he was told there was nothing there for him. Faced with the white man’s growing familiar rage, the young black man shrugged his shoulders and walked out, got in his car, and drove away.
At that point, the owner pulled out a handgun, laid it on the top of the counter, and told the young teenage white male working there, I’m leaving. But if he comes back, shoot him.
I had never been exposed to such a blatant and casual disregard for the life of another person. Let alone for something as insignificant as buying a five-cent pack of chewing gum.
I was terrified. The acrid “taste” of the diner owner’s act remains to this day.
The violent disposition of the owner and potential violence silenced my outspoken mother. The look on her face was a mixture of pure terror and unabridged anger. Slowly and carefully, she removed some money from her purse and placed it on the table. Heads down, she ushered us out of the diner, tears in her eyes, and held me close to her side as we hiked up the hill back to the safety of our bungalow. She tried in vain to explain things that she could not comprehend. Shortly thereafter my parents decided to separate, and mom and I moved back north. We never returned to the South.
With all certainty, after Alabama I became acutely aware that it was not a “Father Knows Best” world; it was instead far more dangerous, unfair, and unjust, in horrific, terrifying ways. As I matured into my teen years, I viewed the Civil Rights Movement from a dramatically different lens. Away from blatant racial prejudice and protected in my mother’s home I quietly understood Dr. King’s passion, was inspired by Bobby Kennedy and in awe of the demonstrators’ courage. But in the shadow of our Northern racial culture it was not given any importance by the adults around me. My mother’s ideals fortunately rose above the silent racism of our white community and guided me accordingly. Any negative comments I overheard had no fertile ground in which to grow.
We Can Be the Benefactor of Our Experiences
“If the heartbeat of racism is denial, the heartbeat of anti-racism is confession. To be anti-racist is to admit when we’ve done wrong so we can begin to right.” Ibram X. Kendi, Director of the Center for Antiracist Research, Boston University and contributing Writer for The Atlantic
Except for my experience in Alabama, I am now crystal clear that I have lived my life protected by my whiteness. I have enjoyed, to a great degree, safety in the world. I have adopted my mother’s perspective, that everyone is to be trusted until they are not. I have lived in a city of diversity for most of my life. And although I have friends of color, my circle is still mostly white. It’s an unintended result of my life path. What I know is that I have also been incredibly clumsy and unaware when trying to navigate the friendships I have had with my black acquaintances. I did not know how to cross that bridge.
Adding to my white confusion, it is now apparent to me that the witnessing of a gun being displayed with an intent to use it to kill left an imprint on me. It was a fiery branding for a 10-year-old, leaving behind a deep unconscious realization that beatings or death were options for anyone who spoke truth to power, even for me in my whiteness.
And so this essay is also my confession. I have been slow to walk across my own Edmund Pettis Bridge, out in the open, courageously unafraid. The horror I witnessed when ten years old is still as fresh today as it was that summer. I didn’t feel, in my heart, that my voice or influence was strong enough. What could one white woman, living in a white world, possibly have to say? And how could she say it throughout her maturing and busy life in a way that could keep her children safe? I just held my course, valued everyone without bias, and admired others who would hopefully take us there.
Along the way I made virtual friends with black authors and leaders. I read books, watched Oprah religiously, fell in love with Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. I became inspired by Nelson Mandela and watched biographical movies of black people who were instrumental in helping build our nation, who fought and died to defend its liberty. I voted for Obama because I believed in what he stood for. I naively thought that his election was a sign we had finally crossed over the line of blind hatred and racial prejudice. To me, he and Michele Obama represented “every person” and were a shining example of what our country might become if we just kept keeping on. It was a hopeful sign that our country would become stronger, healthier. So when challenged with an equally unenlightened question, I was quite frankly flummoxed.
If Obama is so great, why are people ‘all of a sudden’ so openly prejudice and racist? I was being admonished; for what, I was unsure. It felt more like an interrogation rather than an open dialogue to explore a deeper understanding. The accusatory question caught me off guard based on my naïve version of the world. I incorrectly and innocently felt Obama’s Presidency and broad-based approval was a breakthrough, an audacious hope that society, as a majority, had crossed that Edmund Pettis Bridge. That we had evolved as a people from the deep hatred I witnessed in Alabama in 1964 into something far more inclusive.
And then Donald Trump became President, giving permission to white supremacists to step out of the shadows where they had been lurking. Chanting hateful rhetoric, with the Confederate flag in hand flying above the US flag, angry white men and women marching openly, some with KKK hoods, carrying automatic rifles and sporting clubs and nooses. It was surreal.
It was necessary. It needed to be pulled from the shadows and exposed to the light of awareness, even if it brings up feelings of disgrace.
Witnessing the events of Charlottesville only deepened my frustration. Emboldened by Trump’s lies and rhetoric, supremacists have taken center stage. Cruelty and unkindness have become the new language, spoken with a degree of pride that would have gotten me whipped by my mother as a child. Watching Trump award Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom (a talk show host and self-admitted racist who spreads conspiracy theories) was shocking, appalling. It made my skin crawl.
Crossing the Bridge
Years ago, when our niece was engaged to a young black man, a Desert Storm veteran, I felt comfortable enough to ask him what I could do, as a white person, to change things. His response: You are doing it. You are asking the right questions. You are respectful and value me. We are eating dinner together. Break bread and offer your friendship.” Wonderful wisdom from a gentle man willing to fight and potentially die for his country. I have done this but certainly could do more.
Fifty-six years after my Alabama experience I can see there is still so much I do not understand or comprehend about the racial divide. In the safety of my white cocooned life I felt my awareness and experiences were enough. That my respect and kindness was enough. The revealing truth continues to shift my perspective, taking me deeper into a personal understanding that is broadening my world.
Awareness is the Greatest Game Changer of Them All
“Now, I know better. Now I would say: I was born female and made a white girl. What has stayed consistent is that the status “white” has mattered in my life. My understanding of why it matters, though, has altered dramatically.” Birth of a White Nation, The Intervention of White People and Its Relevance Today (Jacqueline Battalora; 2015)
Without awareness, the world we see is myopic. With awareness, we rise above the fray and have an opportunity to have evolved understanding of what we believe, think, or say. We cannot “see” what has been “nurtured and pounded” into us until we are willing to investigate the dark corners of our own life. Until we are each ready to do that, the world can only be viewed by our past and the lies and hate that might have shaped us. A child’s mind is vulnerable; as adults we are less so but still influenced by the people we associate with and the news we receive. We are being given an opportunity to reassess. But if we continue to ignore and reconfirm “nurtured hate” by listening and associating with those who believe the same way, the suffering will continue. Endless repetitious lies morph into dangerous false assumptions that too often lead to inhumane acts perpetrated on other human beings.
History has delivered to our door the opportunity to acknowledge those voluminous atrocities. And above all, historical accuracy now has a chance and, in fact, needs and deserves, to be written truthfully, honestly, respectfully, with full disclosure of the facts and how those facts have shaped our nation. How those facts have shaped us. To do less is to remain sheltered in ignorance and never feel the healing hand that this time offers.
Boiled down to a simple truth, most of us, regardless of color, want only to be respected and get along. We yearn to live in a safe place, to have food, clothing, safety, and decent shelter for our family. We all want and deserve a chance to live out our purpose without fear of death for trying. We want to jog or drive down any main street, knowing we are not only protected by the law, but by each other. We lose nothing as white people by allowing that same equality for all peoples, regardless of what someone looks like or where they come from. In fact, we gain everything. We gain the world.
Alabama changed me but the seed has taken a long time to sprout. I have so often thought of that teenage black boy, at least 74 years or older if alive today, who simply wanted to buy a pack of chewing gum. I hope, beyond hope, that he survived the violence of those who would see him dead. That if he lived to march, he felt the power of his voice and he was able to at least taste a little bit of the freedom he and others fought for.
I hope that George Floyd’s death brings those of us who are white to our knees, not in violent anger but in sorrow and humility. Ignoring what we see instead of acknowledging historical facts is the sins of our fathers but does not need to be our sin. For the suffering, humiliation, and murders of black and brown people I feel soulfully vacant. There is no apology or way to amend for the thousands of black and brown men and women who have suffered senselessly or died for wanting their life. I can do nothing about the past; but I can speak to present time and the future. What gives me hope is the resoluteness of the multi-cultural masses I witness who continue to demonstrate for change, demanding reform. I feel a twinge of hope growing again, smaller than when Barak Obama became President, but unwilling to die or give up.
And I pray that my whiteness is never associated with those of my race who hate and divide, the ones that I am so deeply disgraced by. That my children and grandchildren are viewed not as those who intend to destroy or harm or feel superior to another, but as fellow humans ready to walk beside all people who wish to build a better life, a more inclusive world for all of us.
Without knowledge, perspective, and a shifting awareness, we can never cross our own Edmund Pettis Bridge. If someone has inspired you to a different understanding or perspective, please share. If you are so inclined and would like some resources, the ones below are a good place to begin.
Authors to read: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead, Jacqueline Battalora
Podcasts: Scene on the Radio, Emmanuel Acho, Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man
Movies (the list here is only a minute fraction available. I listed those that impacted me, ones that have a story line that may hold your interest): The Hate You Give; Red Tails; 42; The Color Purple; The Help; Selma; Hidden Figures; Harriet (for more: https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/352046)
The National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington D.C.
Hate Groups in America — https://www.splcenter.org/hate-map
Historical Documentaries — http://www.pbs.org/black-culture/explore/10-black-history-documentaries-to-watch/