I was born in Connecticut in 1990 to a white mother and father. My mother is a Sicilian, activist, feminist, don’t screw with me kind of woman. I am a first generation American. Growing up, I felt so far removed from slavery. As a first generation American I would tell my teenage self, we didn’t have slaves in Italy so how could I possibly be racist?
By the time I was 10 (maybe 12?) my parents were divorced and I met my mother’s first boyfriend. He was a black man, in a reggae band who taught me how to play the bongos. He loved me and I loved him. I can’t be a racist I told myself, I love a black man and trust a black man with my life, my sister’s lives and my mother’s.
We grew up going to reggae concerts with predominantly black crowds besides my family. They could always dance better than me and I was jealous of the beautiful black women I met dancing as a 15 year old. Mom would joke, “You know the difference between going to a club with mainly white people vs. mainly black people? When you walk into a club with predominantly black people, you could almost sing along to the song they’re dancing to before you hear it. White people? They’re all in the same club listening to different music.” We listened to Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Babyface (really, all R&B), and The Queen herself Aretha Franklin. While in school, I remember doing reports mainly on black inventors and scientists: George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman. When I got to choose which topic I presented on it was always about Indigenous people/tribes, The Freedom Trail and The Civil Rights Movement. I even tried to read The Color Purple by Alice Walker when I was 14 (p.s. It was way over my head back then.)
Every MLK day we would go to the Peabody Museum where they would host a free Civil Rights Day: African Drumming, street dancing, educational arts and crafts for the kids and my personal favorite, the Poetry Slam. We’d sit in there forever listening to the poetry, the words, the voices and the tears. “Revolutionaries, come out to play….” one line I will forever remember. Hearing what appeared to be a man talking about hanging up his cleats for heels, my mother taught her 3 daughters under the age of 8 what transgenered met on the way home. My mother was never embarrassed nor rushed us to leave when conversations got what could have been portrayed as uncomfortable or inappropriate. When we got American Girl Dolls, I chose Josephine, the only brown doll I remember seeing at the time. No questions asked, she was mine.
I went to public school in the north. Raised to know that the north won the civil war, black lives mattered (or really, were no different than mine) and that everyone was free. Until I grew up…
When I was 19 my mother married a black man, my step dad. I love him and his entire family as my family – we are all one big beautiful, colorful, happy family. When my mother married my step dad, she also married my baby cousin (who isn’t so baby anymore.) My little cousin loved to hang out with the girls aka me and my 2 sisters. By the time he was 3 years old we were taking him out on “dates”, to the beach, to get ice cream, wherever he wanted to go.
It was then that I learned first hand about racism. Holding hands with a 4 year old, walking across the beach to find the perfect spot to set up in Cape Cod, MA I have never felt more hatred towards me nor toward a child. For the first time in my life, in a sea of white vacationers, I would see and feel them staring at me. My thoughts rolled from, “Do you really think I could produce a child with this dark of skin?!” to “I’m so young, do you really think this is my kid?” I remember keeping my head held high but for the first time, on the defense about this beautiful child who I would protect with my life. Feeling anxious as a 19 year old white female with a 4 year old black male on a public beach alone without some to protect us, God forbid anything should go down. Looking back, I can finally see that my thoughts were of white-privilege. My silence was that as well. My privacy in a public place, privilege too.
We played all summer while I was home from school. One day, my little cousin went up to his mamma and asked, “why can’t I be white like the girls?” Upon finding out about this, I cried. I didn’t know nor did I even think about needing to address this to a 4 year old. Honestly, I forget how his mother handled this question and got him to go to bed but the next day we all sat down and spoke about love and about family. We told a 4 year old that it didn’t matter what he looked like: skin color, eye color, size, shape or etc. That we were a family and what that meant is that we love each other no matter what. Good, bad and ugly. We spoke about loving everyone just as God loves everyone and the color of your skin doesn’t change any of that.
I can see now, that by only having this conversation with my 4 year old cousin and family, how that too is white-privilege. Why weren’t we having these conversations in my predominantly white high school? In college I was taking history, sociology and psychology classes. Why weren’t we talking about it then? Why, to this day as a 30 year old woman who was raised reading and studying black Americans, do I still struggle to find the words?
In one college class we spoke about racism one time. It went like this:
The TA (Teacher’s Assistant) asked us, “If we were to be passed on the sidewalk by a black man, how many of you would clutch your purse tighter? Cross the road?” Almost the whole class raised their hands. I was so confused. I pictured my mom’s ex-boyfriend, my step dad approaching me on the sidewalk, why would I move? Why would I feel threatened?
I raised my hand, “What does this black man look like?” The confusion in my classmates after that question is why I know our educational system is screwed…the unsolicited answers were that of any person, male or female, white or black that you would feel uncomfortable passing alone in a dark alley. I was quiet. I can now see my white-privilege sneak into this scenario as well. By not using my voice against the crowd, against the “norm” I was just as at fault as the rest of them.
I joined a slam poetry class in college. I was the only white female and there was only one other white male who attended only the first two week, then, it was just me. To feel like a minority felt scary, mainly because their poetry was so much better than mine. They rapped, sang and spoke of pain. Real pain. Hearing their emotions in each deliberate word they chose about losing family members, friends, loved ones, barely making it into college. I was raised in a small beach town, white middle class, straight A student who had both my parents and never worried about missing a meal, why the hell was I in this class? What the heck did these people who have suffered so much, need to learn from me? This is white privilege too. Perhaps every 18-21 year old in college is selfish and all about ME. Perhaps no college kid knows the importance of LISTENING. The importance of shutting up and learning from others. I learned by being a minority in this class, to listen and learn from others in a way I never had before. I learned that we all have pains and fears but my love poem about my New York Giants Football Team didn’t do justice beside my new friend’s poem about his 7 year old best friend being shot and killed on their walk home from school together so many years ago.
The world is hurting but this is nothing new. The world has been hurting. Hurting from whites refusing to believe anything is wrong, whites not using their privilege nor their voice. Silencing ourselves when we know what we’re hearing is wrong or unjust. And I won’t be one of them anymore. I may not always get it right but I refuse to be silent. I refuse to hear stories of black men and women and not stand up for them. I refuse to believe that I am “removed” from slavery because I’m a first generation american. I am white and I am privileged and I am ready to use that privilege to help my black friends, family and neighbors get their power back.
Today, I implore you, continue to read about and learn about black history, follow black leaders on your social media pages and LISTEN. Shut your mouth and listen. That’s what this world needs more of. Speak up and use your voice in matters of injustice, prejudice and racism. Listen to black music, black movies and authors. Use your voice, feel uncomfortable and then sit in the fire, in discomfort. When people correct you, don’t take it personally, this is new for many of us. Apologize, correct yourself and learn so you can try again and show up better, more educated and more aligned with your message.
For a whole list of action items white people can do to help Racial Justice:
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