It is a clear memory for me as a third grader moving to a new school. It would be my first of many moves between schools. The move was difficult for me with the loss of my first real friendships – friendships that really spanned a third of my life. We had moved from a rural community to suburbia. It would be my most challenging year of school both academically and emotionally. There was no love lost when we moved again before the end of the school year.
But before going into the specifics of my memory, I want to share what brought out this memory. As you know, this past week has been bringing out voices raising a cry of injustice. It is a cry that is way over due. And the sad reality is so many of us didn’t understand the depths of the injustice – even those of us who have known injustice. I was reading an article by Bryan N. Massingale, “The assumptions of white privilege and what we can do about it”. His article was quite eye opening for me as I had no idea the depth of white privilege in our society. I was absolutely blind to it. (It is a similar ignorance as the child being raised in an unhealthy home and not realizing until they have the opportunity to encounter a healthy family.) The author’s statement that struck me the most was that all white people have a moment some time in their youth when they realize they are glad they are not black. It is a haunting statement as this is the kind of thought that should never enter our minds as we are all created equal – in the very image of God himself – and should never feel as if we are more or less than someone else.
The other gut wrenching part of his statement was I remembered my moment immediately. It was not a common memory for me; however, it was quick to float to the surface. The memory goes back to being nine and the new kid at school. There was no welcome wagon. In fact, I vividly remember a girl in my class confronting me at recess, “we don’t like you and wish you would go away.” They were just mean kids. Yet, I wasn’t their only target. There was another girl in the class who they singled out even more than me. She was a quiet, reserved girl who tried to stay to the edges. It seemed like she would probably be nice; however, I was too afraid to find out, and I kept my distance from her. I did work up the nerve to ask another child if she was new too. She was not. She had always been in their class. I couldn’t understand why they were so mean to her. It just didn’t make sense. Then it came out, she had a black and a white parent. I had no idea what this had to do with anything, but it did explain some of the names they called her. It was at that moment that I had my first thought that I was glad I was not black because things were far worse for her.
Sadly, the story does not end in that third grade classroom. From suburbia, we moved to the depths of Appalachia. During that summer between third and fourth grade, I spent just about every waking hour outside – except for during the rain. By the time school started, my skin was a deep golden brown. This time being the new kid in class, the other children were oddly excited about having me in the class. There was a black child in my grade who had been adopted by a white family in the area. The children were so excited about me because he could finally have a girlfriend because I was also black. This area of Appalachia was so white that they easily mistook my tan as me being black. Instead of feeling happy about being immediately accepted into the group on any level, I recoiled. The prior year had evidently given me a firm lesson that it was not good to be black. In desperation, I tried to explain that I was not black.
This may seem like a minor story to some. It is not. These situations should never happen. All children and all people should be accepted no matter what they or their parents look like or regardless of their heritage. It seems obvious that the children in my third grade class learned the name calling from their parents. And in the fourth grade class, there should not have been distinctions for friendships or any other relationship based on the color of our skin. My hope is that you will take some time to reflect on your own past and identify the moments that may have shaped unknown privilege or lack of privilege in your life. I hope that through my openness in sharing my memory that you will be able to share your memories as well. As with all buried hurts and lies, admitting that they exist and exposing them to the light is a great start towards healing and change.
Black lives matter. Let’s be part of the solution.