“Can I call you ‘sis’?” I asked.
My friend laughed, smiled. “Oh, hell no.”
A white woman calling a black woman “sis” is out of bounds.
I admit, I was hurt. Surely, she knows how much I love her? But she was telling me that no matter how “woke” or evolved I may think I am, I walk this world as a white woman, which means I’ll never truly understand what it is to walk this world as a Black woman.
It was hard to hear. I wanted to call her “sis” because I deeply wanted that feeling of sisterhood and kinship. But I also knew she wasn’t trying to hurt me. She was loving me enough to tell me the truth.
Of course, I wanted to defend myself. I wanted to hand her my bio of protest marches and rallies. I’ve had a Black male lover. I’ve had female lovers. I know what discrimination feels like. I’ve been told I’m going to hell from family members and from my own religion. I am a woman… That alone qualifies me, surely?
Nope. Still doesn’t make me Black. No oppression, no misogyny, no religious persecution will ever make me a Black woman. I am always going to be a white woman walking down the street.
Sure, I was spit on by a white man when I held a Black man’s hand walking down the street, but I was spit on because of Kelvin. Had he not been there, it would have just been me and my white skin. No Kelvin, no spit.
In March, my 11-year-old daughter and I visited the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in DC. As we approached the museum, we watched a big group of folks — grandparents, parents, and kids — step off a tourist bus and enter the museum, as many do every day.
This group was all white, as many are, with every member dressed in a uniform of red MAGA hats, American flags, bald eagles, USA and red, white and blue. They wanted to be identified by who they are and what they believed in. No different than me in my ACLU beanie and Sandy Hook Promise t-shirt.
But regardless of costume, we all wander through museums roughly the same. About an hour or so later, my daughter occupied with an exhibit nearby, I found myself alone in an emptier museum section with a teenaged girl and boy, both white, blonde and wearing MAGA hats.
We weren’t alone for long. A Black teenage boy walked up to them, from across the museum, with purpose. He faced them and said:
“I matter.” They laughed, confused, what?
He pointed to their MAGA hats. “That hat makes me uncomfortable,” he said.
They, with no meanness, replied, “This is a white country.”
They gestured. Look around. The museum was filled almost entirely with white people.
The Black boy’s cheeks reddened. He was brave, but he was alone.
Not sure how much to say or what exactly to do, I moved closer and stood beside the Black teenage boy. Together, we stood, side by side, and faced the two white MAGA teenagers.
I didn’t say anything. I just wanted him to know that I, a middle-aged white woman, was there for him. He never looked at me. I don’t know if he even knew I was there. But I could feel the electricity in his body. See the sweat beading on his forehead. I could imagine his heart racing. As mine once had, walking down the street holding Kelvin’s Black hand or a woman’s white hand in mine.
“This is not a white country,” he said.
The white teenage boy and girl again laughed. Not of derision but confusion. The Black teenage boy was close to tears.
I was the first to notice the MAGA families walking toward us. Their parents, I assumed. I took a step closer to the Black teenage boy. Maybe it was my slight movement closer to him that made him look and see them, too.
He said, “It’s all our country. Why don’t you get that?”
He didn’t wait for an answer. He’d said his peace. So, he walked away.
Later that night, I wondered, had I done enough? Was being a witness enough?
The next day in DC was spent at the National African American History Museum. At this museum, there were no MAGA filled tourist buses. My daughter and I were some of the only white people.
I was acutely aware of being white while looking at images of human beings in chains, babies stolen from crying mothers who were sold on the auction block, the backs of Black men whipped and scarred.
There are many ethnicities living in America but Black people have the unique constitutional distinction of being owned and quite literally dehumanized by white people. That, and all that followed in service to that, no matter how long ago it was, still sits deep in all our psyches.
I waited in a long line of Black people to see Emmett Till’s coffin. In 1955, Emmett Louis Till was a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago who was visiting Mississippi.
A married 21-year-old white woman accused him of whistling at her. Three days later, the Black teenager was hauled away from his bed by white men. He was lynched, beaten, mutilated and shot in the head. Witnesses passing by could hear his screams. “Mama. Come save me.” The killers strung barbed wire and a 75-pound metal fan around his neck then dumped his lifeless body in the Tallahatchie River.
Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, insisted on an open casket. She wanted the country to view her son’s bloated, mangled body. “When people saw what happened to my son, men stood up who had never stood up before,” Mamie Till said.
The all-white jury took one hour to acquit the two white men of Emmett’s murder. They would have acquitted him sooner, they said, but they stopped for a soda break. 100 days after Emmett’s murder, Rosa Parks was riding a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Sixty-two years later, Carolyn Bryant, the woman who accused Emmett Till of whistling at her, admitted she lied.
Standing in front of Emmett’s coffin, I felt such rage, such anger at what happened that I could not contain it. Like a broken vase, water started seeping out of my eyes. My entire body started shaking, cracking, breaking. I can’t explain it other than, I’d left that room for a moment and went somewhere else.
We believe we hand down talent, personality, and the physical and emotional genetics of our ancestors. What if we also hand down their pain? Generation after generation of unhealed pain of being an oppressor or the oppressed?
When I returned to my body again, I felt warmth all around me. Hands were on my back, on my shoulders, holding me upright. I looked down. The hands were all Black. It was one of the most profound moments of my life. To be held and witnessed like that.
Later that night, I thought — should I, as a white woman, have kept it together? Should anyone, in front of such violence, be expected to? How many generations of Black people have been expected to?
When I was a 20-year-old white girl holding my Black boyfriend’s hand as we walked down the street, Kelvin did not tell the white man who spit on me to fuck right the hell off. I did, causing Kelvin to grab my arm and drag me away. Later, Kelvin and I had our worst fight as a young couple.
I was angry he didn’t stand up for me. He was angry I didn’t understand why he couldn’t.
I didn’t get it when Kelvin pulled me away. I made it about me.
I didn’t get it when my friend told me I couldn’t call her “sis.” I didn’t realize that I was asking to adopt another race’s culture, experience and identity. I made it about me.
The white MAGA teens inside the Air and Space Museum didn’t get why a Black boy needed to say, “I matter.” They made it about them.
Carolyn Bryant didn’t get it when she accused 14-year-old Emmett Till. She made it about her.
J.W. Milam didn’t get it when he murdered Emmett Till. “What else could I do?“ he said. “He thought he was as good as any white man.” He made it about him.
Very few describe themselves as racist, but all white people benefit from racism.
White people benefit every time they rent an apartment, buy a car, apply for a loan, apply to college. My child and I are more likely to survive childbirth, and I am far more likely to be alive after I’m pulled over by a white cop.
Racism is not an attitude or a feeling toward people who are different than you, it is a structural, institutional system that has benefited white people from the day Europeans landed on this soil.
White people own the top percent of the vast wealth in this county, which was created by exploiting the unpaid labor of people of color. White people own the majority of real estate, run the vast majority of corporations, determine the cost of their products and the pay of the employees. White people control the political system, the judicial system, the educational system, the health system and the legal system.
But none of these systems are broken. They were built this way. White people are broken. They built these systems this way.
Racism hasn’t ended because white people don’t want it to end. If white people did not benefit from racism, they would have ended racism a long time ago.
What is the measure of any society? Is it the health and happiness of all its people — or just a select group? That we live in a society where anyone would have to assert they matter at all, should tell you something is very wrong.
White people are broken, but they don’t have to be. Broken is not evil. Broken means it needs to be fixed. Healed. Changed. White supremacy is a white people problem. White people created this mess. White people need to clean it up.
Yet, we well meaning white people get confused about when to speak up and when to shut up, and we’re deeply afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. So often, we do or say nothing.
White people saying nothing is why we are at the place we are now.
So perhaps we can start by accepting we don’t know what we don’t know?
Perhaps when we are called out for getting it wrong, we don’t defend, we ask why?
Perhaps when a Black person tells us racism exists, we believe them.
We become curious, not critical. We ask to hear their experiences. We listen not to respond, but to understand. To actively understand where the person you are listening to is coming from.
For a Black person to say, “Black is Beautiful,” a white person first said, “Black is Not Beautiful.”
For a Black person to say “Black Lives Matter,” a white person first said, “Black Lives Do Not Matter.”
Black people do not need us to speak for them. They need us to hand them the mic.
Perhaps we’ve said enough for a while. Perhaps it’s time to listen.
Because to be held and witnessed is something we can all do for one another.