Target is hard get to from where I live. It is too far to walk. It is also too close to consider taking the L train. Therefore, I found myself walking the long trek to Target. Luckily, I had a good friend to join me. My walk to target taught me an important life lesson.
Please keep in mind that I am writing this post not to make a point, argue or to offend. I am writing this merely to share my experience and to process what I have learned.
I have not done enough studying on the turmoil that took place in Ferguson, MO. I just know the event was awful and effects many today on both racial sides. Two in ten African Americans will say that cops treat both white and black people equally the same. Six in ten white Americans will say that the justice system will treat both the same. All I really know is I used to be one of those 6 white Americans.
I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. I went to a high school where I felt there was a good mix of blacks and whites. Looking back, I always had a friend or knew of someone who was black. That is rare, sometimes, for a white American depending on where you grow up. However, at lunch I was always sitting with the white kids.
I moved to Chicago for college. During that time, I dated a guy who is black. I don’t think I really understood what it meant to be black in America. I didn’t understand what it was like in the suburbs to be black, and I definitely didn’t understand what it was like to be black in the city. However, I wanted to know. I wanted desperately to understand.
Racist. That is such a harsh word. I know for a fact white people are usually afraid of it. It is a word that sets whites and blacks on opposite ends of the spectrum. The harsh reality of the word as well as the misunderstanding of what it actually means puts a divide between two people groups. Ironically, I have been called racist only twice in my life- both by white people.
I remember another time I was walking. Probably walking to a place that was too close to take a train and yet too far to walk. This time, I was with the guy I was dating at the time. A black man passed us and made a comment to my boyfriend. “Why you holding that girl’s hand?” As the stranger went laughing down the street, I was left trying to make sense of the situation. Luckily, I have a sense of humor and tried to laugh off the awkwardness. My boyfriend, on the other hand, was laughing his head off with no problem. We started to talk about race. I felt like all the differences and misunderstandings poured over. I remember stopping. I stopped. I stopped walking. I stopped laughing. I just stopped. “Why do you always have to point out our differences? Why do you always have to point out that I am white, you are black, and we are different?” The thought that crossed my mind was that the differences were too great. I was afraid that I would lose him because the distance between us would be too great. I was almost in tears at this point. He was a great communicator and very gentlely explained a few things that changed the way I looked at racial differences.
I don’t recall the exact words he used, but this is what I gathered from the conversation: Those who are black do not want their differences to be ignored. They want it to be acknowledged that they are different. However, they do not want to be treated differently. Differences are ok.
Different. Let me be specific. Life is not as easy for an individual who is African American as it would be if their skin was white. I think acknowledging this sad fact and not brushing it aside is what I mean by not ignoring differences.
I didn’t realize this, but as I started to get to know my boyfriend and his family I was more comfortable with the differences. Before, I was terrified of them. I had no idea, but I was afraid of something that I didn’t understand, like his culture. As I started to understand, I felt at home. I was able to joke about how he and I were brought up and how different it was. We made jokes about where I would shop and where he would not shop. We had to laugh and joke about how different we were. I loved it. I don’t remember feeling like I was stepping on someone’s toes or afraid of offending someone. I was able to be myself and he was able to be himself.
I never meant for the joking to hurt or to be malicious. I really deeply cared for him. We would tell each other “you crossed a line” if we went too far. I think I had to only tell him that once or twice. We would immediately apologize. Although things ended badly in that relationship, I am forever grateful to have known him and his family. When the relationship did end, I felt like a part of a culture I had adopted died as well.
At the same time, I was not aware that I had started to change. The change happened gradually, like when a storm comes. The change that occurred was how I no longer felt understood by my white friends. They were afraid of the jokes I would tell. They would feel uncomfortable when I would talk about African American culture. I get it. I had been there. I still am sometimes. It was not until Christmas break that I realized there was a part of me that my white friends would not understand. I stood in a place that was hard to get to. I was too far but also too close at the same time. Like traveling to Target in the city, I had to keep walking.
Back to the long walk to Target. My friend was quickly getting very frustrated with me. I could tell I had struck a nerve. I was frustrated as well. Our school had just gone through an event that created some racial tension. I was trying to process what had happened since, again, I didn’t completely understand. The tension came from a talk on “White Privilege”. Now I know nothing about that term except what first come to my mind. My dad. My dad is a hard working white male who grew up in a farming family in IL. He worked his way up in the company he worked for. I grew up in the higher range of the middle class. I consider myself to have white privilege. That was my definition.
White Privilege. The term does not have anything to do with the slave trade or your financial situation. It actually means you automatically have a step up in society because of the color of your skin…. you are white… It is a reality.
I, for some reason, thought it was a good idea to share with my friend who was clearly upset about the issue at school, my definition. After all, I am white. I tried to relate with her and say “I can see how this could make you upset… but…”
“You don’t get it…. you just don’t get it….” She kept shaking her head.
“Get what?” I was confused. Of course I got it. My two closest friends at the time were both black. My boyfriend of a year was black. Doesn’t that count? Don’t I understand enough?
“No, Hannah, you don’t get it… You never will.”
Right there I think my heart really did drop in my chest. I realized then how much I wanted to understand. My friend knew it was of good intent. She knew I just really loved her so much that I wanted it to be easy. I didn’t want it to be messy. I didn’t want our relationship to be hard. I didn’t want there to be this huge gap between us. There was fear.
I will never be black. I will never be an African American. I will never understand the flip side or gruesome side effects of White Privilege. That’s ok. I don’t have to. I will never understand the amount of discrimination a person who is black will have to go through in their lifetime. I will never understand how misunderstood they may feel. That is ok. I am different. I am white. I had to let go of the fear and just keep walking the distance. It may be too close and too far, this awkward thing called race. I will keep walking to reach the distance because I am not alone.