Once, in a city, on the way to an appointment that was “not in my neighborhood,” I boarded a bus when whammo. Immediately I felt it. “What did I feel?” you ask?
“My skin color,” I say, prominent, exposed, obvious, but not unprotected.
Usually I don’t notice my skin. I rarely notice it has color. My skin is just, well, there. I’m just, well, me. But that moment on the bus shined a spotlight. All eyes on me, I was the only white person on the bus.
There was a seat. Was it in the front or at the back? Not sure. No need to think about that. Probably, after a moment, no one was looking at me. But in my mind, my skin color wore neon lights.
Embarrassing to admit, but, when I see an African-American person in, say, a Whole Foods market near me, I have the impulse to smile, as if to say, “I’m one of the nice ones.” And I wonder what planet I think I live on that the person passing me by really gives a hoot whether I’m smiling or not.
I just watched the video of Eric Garner who died after being placed in a chokehold by a white police officer as he struggled to breath. “I can’t breath, I can’t breath,” his voice panicked as he lay on the city cement. Remember how when you were little and you’d wrestle with your siblings or your dad, and you’d get in a hold and say, “I can’t breath.” And they knew to stop sitting on your stomach. They didn’t hesitate. They got off. Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who put Mr. Garner in a chokehold did not stop. And now Mr. Garner is dead. I want to panic, hold my head in disbelief, but I must do more.
I struggle about what to teach my children about racism and their place “on the bus,” and “in their neighborhood.” What do my two kids, my two white boys growing into white men need to know so they can be part of a solution to eradicate racism in the United States of America?
They need to know their history, deeply. They must know what we did. I’ll stop for a minute to define we. Who are we? Any white person whether we explicitly did something or not. Just being white in America makes us responsible for our history. Here are a few subjects: Slavery — African Americans were enslaved by white people in our country for 400 years. Did your eyes just roll. Did you think, “You’re bringing that up again?” Until tangible reparations are made, we aren’t done dealing with slavery. Further, my kids must know that African Americans fought slavery. There’s more; I want them to know about reconstruction; that for a time after the civil war, many black men were in elected office. I want them know about suppression of voting rights, Jim Crow, the KKK, lynching, mobs, job discrimination, racism on sports teams, among many subjects.
George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” History is repeating. Consider the new version of disenfranchisement in Texas where laws require Texans to show identification to vote. I explain to my kids why this is discriminatory. I want them to know this is a new form of the voter suppression that occurred in the 1960’s when African Americans in the south were not able to vote unless they passed a history test. I want them to know.
I want them to know how many African American men are in prisons today. I want them to know that the cost of incarcerating someone is greater than the cost of attending college.
Seated at dinner last night, we discussed the protests against the grand jury’s decision not to indict a Police Officer Pantaleo in the death of Mr. Garner. Peaking their interest, my kids asked questions. They need to know.
We all need to know, and we need to feel uncomfortable. White Americans are not entitled to live without acknowledging ourselves and our history. When one day one of my kids says, “I felt uncomfortable because I was the only one, “ I will reflect to him, “Yes, I know that feeling.” We all have a lot to talk about. Dear White America, what would you like to discuss today? Let’s start, again, and again, and again.