You Are Part of the Problem,” Wanda Sykes
A confluence of inspirations came together for me recently. Marley K. asked me to write of my experiences immersing myself into the Black community. And then, I watched the Wanda Sykes Neflix special where she talks about race relations in America, and how we finally must resolve our issues to prevent a repeat of the current resurgence of racism. She says, “If you don’t have a Black friend, you are part of the problem.”
Marley K. describes perfectly the feelings Black people have in America, always having to be the ones to assimilate and “keep White people calm.” This squelching of personality and culture keep White people from experiencing and understanding Black people on the deepest level. If you are White and have a Black “friend,” but have never been to their home, you don’t really have a Black friend. And if you never go anywhere with your Black friend where you are the minority, or the only white person, you will never understand the Black experience, or the anxiety they deal with on a daily basis in the majority white culture.
I grew up in an all-white, small Texas town. I was saved from total unawareness of other ethnicities and my privileged ignorance by my church, which is strange since Sunday church services are still one of the most segregated hours in America. Our denomination is The First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and they have long been activists supporting social justice. While I am no longer active, it is where I honed my revolutionary skills. The denomination has had a Reconciliation program since the 1960’s where time and money is donated and volunteered to Historically Black Colleges and communities.
My first true interaction with Black people was during sensitivity exercises in a Black Disciples of Christ church in the small city close to my home. I was 15 years old. The exercises had been developed at Esalon. The most powerful exercise involved forming two circles, and moving in opposite directions to take turns with everyone in the circle. We were instructed to look deeply into one another’s eyes for one minute without speaking. This is much harder than it sounds. After thirty seconds though, the mind stops chattering about differences, calms down and lets you just look into the other’s soul. It’s a bonding experience as well as an one of awareness. While I locked eyes with everyone in the group, my strongest memory is of one man in his forties. He had the most gentle, caring and calm eyes I had ever seen. My culturally incorporated fear of Black men left me that night.
On a trip to a Head Start program of all Black children, we learned that the Black Panthers started the Head Start program and the Free Breakfast program. White propaganda about Black Panthers had been my only exposure to them until then. It cemented my dedication to social justice and active protest.
Church camp gave me a deeper understanding of prejudice and the injustices of institutionalized racism. Dr. Charlie Baird, a professor at the seminary where Rev. Richard Wright was affiliated, was our keynote speaker. This small town Texas girl learned of Chicago police raids of gatherings of Black people, and of absentee landlords of buildings where Black babies died from eating lead based paint chipping of the walls of their nurseries. I began listening to Billie Holiday, and learned the meaning of her song “Strange Fruit,” about lynchings throughout America’s history. I read books by Black authors, including Dick Gregory and Sammy Davis Jr., with first person accounts of racism. Every new piece of information chipped away at the inherent racism I had absorbed just by being White in America. And we were encouraged to seek out immersion experiences. I couldn’t do that, other than visiting Black churches from my small town base, until college.
In college and after, I purposely put myself in settings where I was the only, or one of few, White people. Music performances, poetry slams, Black oriented movies, NAACP gatherings. I experienced what Black people experience every day in White America. Initial discomfort, some fear, awareness of being watched, and the weird knowledge that there were aspects of the Black experience being hidden from me, until people forgot I was there. It was then I could absorb the linguistics and the interactions that Black people often did not exhibit in a White environment. I learned to Dap and picked up the lingo. We didn’t call it appropriation back then. There was no word for it, since so few White people outside of New York City had these experiences.
A couple of years before my son was born, I forged a friendship with a Black woman, Nancy Singleton, in one of my graduate school classes. Or, as she likes to tell it, “I’m standing outside during a break in the class, and this crazy White woman comes up and tells me she wants to get to know me.” She had shared in class her struggles as a single mother who traveled with two young children from New York to Texas to attend graduate school. We became close and stayed that way through much of my son’s childhood, until she moved to Georgia. We became so close that she would forget I was White. Once, driving in her car, she said to me, “I just hate White people.” I felt honored that she trusted me enough to share that feeling. Another time we were getting dressed at her apartment to go out. I wanted to wear a white blouse, but was concerned it was too see-through. She said, “Just wear a black bra under it.” I answered, “Yeah, that just won’t work for me like it does for you.”
Sometimes she would remember. We were hanging out once and she had been invited to a party. She told me, “You’re welcome to come with me, but I need to ask the host first.” Cool. But on the phone I heard her say, “She’s White, is that okay?” It was, and I was the only White person there. One woman called me “Baby Girlfriend” (I was older) and challenged me in subtle ways some White people might have missed, but eventually accepted me as being Nancy’s real friend.
When we would go places with the children, White people assumed she was my son’s mother. He is half-Black. But he is also half-White, and they never assumed I was his mother when she and I were together with him. Apart from hair texture and skin tone, he looks very much like me. That’s how deeply racism and prejudice is embedded in America.
I became good friends with the principal at my son’s school when he was in elementary. Kim Noel and I are still friends, though we have lived in different cities more often than not. She and I were members for awhile in a group called the “Ageless Club,” started by her mother and aunts. Again, as the only or sometimes one of two white women there, I was welcomed warmly. We had deep discussions, and danced the Electric Slide in her Mom’s kitchen. I attended the funeral of one of Kim’s aunts in her predominantly and historically Black church. My son would sometimes come with me, and loved having all those extra aunts and grandmothers. When Kim’s son married, I called to congratulate her, and said, “Hey, now you have a White girl in the family.” She said, “Carol, you were the first White girl in our family.” We were joking, of course. She feels as blessed by her culturally blended family, which goes way beyond a crazy White friend and her White daughter-in-law, as I do by her friendship.
Now is better for Black and White friendships, but not enough. As both Wanda Sykes and Marley K. attest, White people can be so-called friends with Black people, but have never visited their homes or joined them at primarily POC activities. When my son, who is 25, was in school, I purposely made friends with the mothers of his Black friends. I taught him his Black heritage, and made sure he had as much exposure as possible to the varieties of Black culture. As a plus, I gained the experience of being included in family dinners, fish fries, and parties in their homes where, once again, I was the one of the only white people. My sister, Elaine, who helped raise my son was one of the others.
I took my son to lectures by Black authors, art exhibits by Black artists, and pointed out to him that the sculptures of Tutankhamun, Egyptian pharaoh, had facial features like his, including the lips, nose, and almond shaped eyes. I knew he would get information about his White heritage in mainstream life. But there are Black people in America who don’t know their history as well as he does.
I wanted him to understand that he comes from one of the strongest people on earth. Their history makes their struggle here unique. Black people in America survived the Diaspora and over 200 years of slavery. They flourished briefly after, and then were forced to traverse and survive Jim Crow laws for decades more. They survive and thrive and still struggle daily with institutionalized racism. And while all minorities in America experience prejudice, Black people still endure the brunt of discrimination. My son has been called “Son” by White cops, and has been denied entrance to clubs because of the types of shoes or shorts he was wearing. Once when he was turned away, he traded shoes with a White friend, and they both got in. You can read more about what he has faced in my post on Medium.com, “Raising a Young Black Man in America When You Are White.”
Granted he hasn’t suffered like his ancestors did, and because of his dual heritage, and our travels, he is comfortable in all cultural settings. It’s far more common for his generation to have friends from all cultures, and to visit each other’s homes, and to live together. I am grateful for progress. However, there is always more progress to be made. As Wanda says, if you don’t have a Black friend, you are part of the problem. And you are missing out on a rich cultural heritage that will expand your mind and deepen your understanding of others who differ from you in skin tone and experiences.
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