I’m going to start by saying I’m white. I simply do not know of myself what it’s like to experience being in skin of color. And I’m coming to appreciate more as I get older and as more shattering events occur just how much that means: that as much as I sympathize, I really can’t empathize.
My husband is Filipino. He is a person of color, though not black. My youngest child is adopted and is black. I love them and do my best to listen to them and their experiences, but I will never be in their shoes.
I do know this: being a POC means that you will likely always stand out, or at the very least feel you stand out. I’ve had 27 years of hearing my husband share with me how it’s felt for him. He’s lived in the Bay Area, in central California, in Utah, and in Alabama with me. He felt at home in the Bay Area amongst a mixture of ethnicities. In Utah, he was an ethnic oddity among a very homogeneous group of often-blond whites. In Alabama, even I felt the awkwardness, the otherness, the aversion that could happen (the silence that fell when we stepped into a small-town cafe was palpable; we stepped out quickly). He’s had people look at him askance, he’s had people call him names based on his Asian-ness (to be straight here, he’s had both whites and blacks call him Chinese-related slurs).
Even having this experience watching him and listening to his stories, I as a white woman still cannot claim any true experience for myself. I stand on the outside.
My daughter who is black is a young teenager, coming into herself, so I don’t feel our conversations have been as extensive and deep as I would claim those I’ve had with my husband to be. I anticipate having a lot more that are insightful and helpful to me as a white person in the future.
I have always considered myself open and “not racist.” I have a multi-racial family! But here I am at age 50, and with recent events and opportunities to read a lot of excellent posts from persons of color, I think I’m making progress in my views. I can look at myself and recognize that there are times I do make some judgments. They may be fleeting and I may check myself, but I know they happen. I also know that I am in a lot of ways pretty insulated in my white world, and I rarely have to think about, let alone have my life impacted by, concerns that affect POC every single day.
The Civil Rights Movement was one of protests, peaceful and not, of upheaval. It changed our society. But I think that change was more on the macro level: laws were put into place that made people truly more equal legally. Decades later, however, there is still obviously a lot more progress that needs to be made, and it’s not necessarily on a level that requires major laws to be passed; it’s on a level of better awareness and changing some institutional behaviors and attitudes. Women for years have been harassed and assaulted and have endured (or spoken up and been ignored or shut down or harassed further). The #MeToo movement encouraged millions of women to speak up and share just how common and entrenched sexual harassment is, and I think it made a tremendous difference. #BlackLivesMatter has been around for a few years, but with the events of the past weeks, it is gaining traction throughout a greater portion of society. I hope that it will truly open up a tremendous information highway on which POC can and will share their own stories of how they regularly experience being treated differently or have been harassed or feared for their lives or feared for the loved ones’ lives or feared incarceration, etc. How they feel less than or other day in and day out.
I have read every story friends have shared on Facebook recently, from the professor who was detained by two white officers because they said he matched the description of a thief to a woman who fears for her husband’s safety whenever he goes out to the father who feels safer going on walks with his children than when he goes out alone in his very own neighborhood. I hope to read many, many, many more. I hope all of us will.
I admit I used to think in response to hearing about Black Lives Matter, “Well, ALL lives matter.” Now I get it. White lives matter, of course. They have for centuries. We haven’t had to fight for basic rights as blacks have. I love the metaphor I’ve seen a few people use that comes from the Bible. Jesus taught about the shepherd who left his 99 sheep to go out to find the 1 missing. Finding that one missing sheep doesn’t make those remaining 99 any less important or valuable or equal; it simply means that one sheep is in trouble. People of color are in trouble and have been for decades, for much longer. Can’t we as the 99 give a little space in our hearts to allow that Black Lives Matter is focusing on helping and saving that 1 sheep?
I fervently hope that this moment really is the one where whites give room to save those sheep. Listening to their stories is just a first step. Those stories will lead us then to the place where we can better know how to lock arms with them and step out and demand change as it is needed in various places in society.