Ferguson, Race Relations, & My Own Journey Towards Racial Equality

In light of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri & the various & sundry posts related to these events that I’ve read on Facebook in the past few days, I’ve decided to write what will certainly be one of my most difficult blog posts to date.  I am by nature a very introspective person meaning, like most things I observe in life, the events in Ferguson have stimulated me to examine my own beliefs & prejudices.  This is a difficult post for me to write & will be even more difficult to actually share because it will involve a brutally honest account of my own evolution in attempting to rid myself of racial/ethnic/cultural prejudices.  I hope that my honesty will encourage you, my readers, to do the same.ferguson riots

As some of you may know, I grew up in a very small town in a rural area of Virginia.  The county is about 76% white, 23% black, & 1% everything else (that 1% is mostly mixed race or Hispanic, while there are literally a handful of Asian families in the county, & I do mean literally a handful).  My mom is a teacher & I credit both her & my dad for raising me to have respect for people of all races, religions, ethnicities, & cultures.  However, I cannot pretend that I grew up completely free of racial prejudice . . . Far from it, to be completely truthful.

First let me explain a bit about race relations as they were at the time I grew up in my hometown.  Keep in mind that these are just MY personal experiences & others who grew up in the same small town may very well have had different experiences . . . but I’d be willing to bet many will agree with my observations.  As a child, I quickly realized that the black kids & white kids “naturally” separated.  There was certainly some overlap, but in general kids separated into friend groups based largely on race.  It’s just the way things were.  (Bear in mind that many of us grew up with parents, & certainly grandparents, who attended segregated schools, at least through middle school.)  In high school I also began noticing how rare it was to see a black student involved in art, drama, or band or taking honors/AP classes.  It’s not that it was unheard of, but it was clearly outside the norm.  The few black students who did partake in these activities quite often had mostly white friends & I distinctly remember overhearing other black students refer to them as “not really black.”  I was horrified then & I’m even more horrified now because I realize how symptomatic such comments were of a larger societal phenomenon that is wreaking havoc on our culture.  After all, such comments imply that black people aren’t supposed to participate in fine arts or higher education . . . which is just ludicrous.  Lastly, let me just mention that at football games & other such big events it was very common to see both kids & adults separated into groups almost exclusively based on race.  I hope all of this gives you at minimum a murky idea of race relations in my hometown, at least as I experienced them.  (To anyone from my hometown who reads this & may resent me for “making us look bad,” please consider that glossing over these issues does nothing to help us solve them.)racial equality

Truthfully, the further along I got in school, the more uncomfortable I became with many of my black classmates.  This was largely due to a series of unfortunate incidents in which a few black girls were mean to me . . . I still remember being in high school & sometimes being afraid to go to my locker because a certain group of black girls who had lockers near mine would try to keep me away from my locker & taunt me by saying “this little white girl want to get her books” & other such things that quite literally frightened me.  Going back as far as primary school I remember a few older black girls who continuously made fun of my sister & me on the bus & often referred to us as “them little white girls.”  I’ve always been an introspective person & I remember hating myself for feeling afraid of or uncomfortable around most black people in my community because of repeated incidents like this.  I didn’t WANT to be some prejudiced Southern bigot.  I wanted to accept & love everyone & not even think about people’s race, whether they be black, Hispanic, Asian, or anything else.  But I was continuously confronted with incidents that made that incredibly difficult.

In any case, I attended college in the mountains of SW Virginia & there was not a large black population at my university.  However, there was definitely greater racial & cultural diversity than there had been in my hometown.  While at college I immediately noticed that regardless of race the students I met were by & large intelligent, articulate, kind, & hard-working.  As a result, I began to feel more & more comfortable with black students (as well as students of other races, but I had never had any negative experiences with other races because, as I explained earlier, there just weren’t enough other minorities around in my hometown), & I began to understand that it wasn’t so much their race that made me uncomfortable around many of the black people with whom I was raised.  Instead it was their culture, a culture largely founded on poverty, broken families, poor education, & a society that had historically been very unkind to them.  I also realized that I had been equally uncomfortable around a large portion of the white kids I grew up with.  And the reason for that was that their culture too was largely based on the exact same negative things (poverty, poor education, & broken families), minus of course the historical racial prejudices.Black-Poverty-2012-Statistics-chart

Just over a year after I graduated from college, my husband & I moved to the Raleigh-Durham area of NC.  Once here I was thoroughly gratified to live in a truly multi-cultural area for the first time in my life.  I quickly realized how much more vibrant & interesting it is to live in an area with people from literally all around the world.  My husband & I both work with people from almost every race on the planet, & while our neighborhood is probably over 50% white, there is definitely a significant black population as well as a fair amount of Asian & Hispanic families.  (In fact, there are several communities just a few miles from us that are sometimes called “Little India” or “Little China” because of the significant Indian & Asian populations there.)  Furthermore I am somewhat ashamed to admit that it took me months of living here to get used to the fact that I routinely see black people driving BMWs, Mercedes, & many other much nicer cars than I will probably ever own.  (Those kinds of symbols of wealth were rare for white people in my hometown, but they were nigh unheard of for African Americans.)    Additionally I began to realize how common inter-racial relationships are in this area & how I no longer gave such relationships a second thought or glance.  I also can’t help but smile every time I go to the mall or walk around my neighborhood & see kids of different races playing together peacefully.  To be clear, I LOVE seeing these things.  I LOVE being reminded that the society in which I grew up wasn’t normal.  Or at least it isn’t how things HAVE to be.diverse kids

Perhaps most importantly I realized after being here a few months that I no longer felt uncomfortable around black people.  I distinctly remember eating lunch in the break room at work one night with three of my African American coworkers.  They were already in the room when I came in to eat my lunch & I never thought twice about whether I should sit down & join them (as I certainly would have done in high school).  I just pulled up a chair & started talking with them just like they were anyone else (because they really ARE just like anyone else).  And it was quite obvious that none of us felt uncomfortable.  It was awesome!  I thought almost nothing of the situation at the time, but being the introspective person that I am I thought of that lunch later & realized just how significant it really was in light of my vastly different childhood experiences.

I also realized, as difficult as it was to accept, that I was part of the problem in my hometown (& in our larger society) in that I allowed my own fear & discomfort to hold me back.  To be more precise, I allowed it to build walls between me & the black kids around me.  I entered the equation thinking we were too different to possibly connect on a real level; thus I didn’t even give it a fair shot.  Furthermore I realized that as adults our behavior is our own responsibility & none of us can blame race alone for anything.

However, I also began to understand how many real obstacles there still are for black people in America.  For example, the Trayvon Martin case in Florida & dozens of other situations that are even clearer make it extremely obvious that we have a real problem with police brutality in this country & that sadly it is largely aimed at black men.  Unfortunately fifty years after MLK’s “I have a dream” speech, we haven’t come as far as we ought to have.  The case in Ferguson seems to me to be a bit more complicated in that it appears that the police officer did have a legitimate reason to be afraid of Michael Brown, though I don’t feel like I know enough about the case to say whether using deadly force against him was truly justified.  And that really isn’t the point of this post.MLK I have a dream

The point of this post is that such horrible events need to make each & every one one of us evaluate our own prejudices.  And we also must realize that the violence & looting that is currently going on in Ferguson is exactly the wrong reaction to these kinds of situations.  It’s not that I don’t sympathize with the anger, bitterness, & disappointment that many in the African American community in Ferguson (indeed the whole nation) are feeling at this time.  However, burning down stores & terrorizing public & private property does absolutely zero to advance the cause of justice or true racial equality & understanding.  All it really does is reinforce negative stereotypes that only serve to perpetuate racial tension between the people of this country.  As a simplified but practical example, consider this: if a girl is called a slut, no matter how unjustified that may be, if the girl proceeds to go out & have sex with every guy she knows, her actions are only giving evidence to the original accusation.  I realize this case is far more complicated than that . . . But the fact of the matter is that the African American community is facing some serious issues right now, all of which are multifactorial & none of which has an easy solution.  Higher rates of poverty, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, HIV, absentee fathers, imprisonment, & other such issues cannot be solved overnight.  (To be clear these are not “black people problems.”  They are societal problems that impact all of us, but it’s certainly worth noting that these problems are disproportionately present in the black community.)violence dalai lama

But these problems also won’t be solved by violent rioting & looting.  Neither will they be solved by simply blaming the system or giving up hope.  The only way they’ll ever be solved & the only way we’ll ever reach true peace between the races, black, white, & everything else, is if we each do our part to be as free of prejudice as we can & to each live the best, most uplifting life we can.  And the only way to free ourselves of prejudice is to start with some serious introspection.  Yes, it will be hard.  Yes, it will make you uncomfortable.  And yes, there are times when you will not like what you find within your own soul.  But none of us can ever change until we confront our own demons.  Furthermore one of the best ways to combat prejudice is to live a life that proves all the negative stereotypes wrong.  Sure, there will always be people who are racially prejudiced & will never change their minds, but they are the minority.  As more & more kids are raised to believe that all races truly are equal & worthy of love & respect, those kind of narrow-minded people will certainly become the true minority.

Lastly, never forget the power of a smile or a simple kind word or deed.  For example, next time you see a black man on the street, consider all the negative stereotypes working against him.  Consider all the times people have crossed the street to get away from him.  Consider how many women in this country automatically feel less safe around him simply because of his race even when they know absolutely nothing about him.  Instead of crossing the street or simply looking away, greet him with a smile & a nod.  Acknowledge that he is every bit as human as you are.  This is how true change can start.

MLK love

I never thought I was truly racist growing up, but I know I’m a better person now for forcing myself to face my own prejudices & rid myself of them as best I can.  I’m by no means perfect, but I’m trying every day to be better, & that’s what matters.  I know this was long, but honestly there is so much more I could say.  I hope you’ve stuck with me & been inspired in some small way to examine your own prejudices & to go out & make the world a better place for people of all races.

And to all the African Americans (& anyone else) I’ve ever unfairly judged or to whom I’ve somehow unjustly shown prejudice, I offer my sincerest apologies.  I know I’ve been part of the problem in the past, even if I didn’t realize it at the time, but this is my pledge to work toward being part of the solution.

Love & peace to all.  I will end with a quote from the wise man himself, Martin Luther King, Jr.

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.  Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.  Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.  Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate.  In fact, violence merely increases hate.  So it goes.  Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.  Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.