Because I Haven’t Known What to Say

Because the events of the past week — the horrific shooting deaths of nine African-Americans in a Charleston church by a young white racist, and the — maybe — final straw that will bring down the Confederate battle flag, and bring the longed-for change, I am trying to say —

Because when we were children, in the extremely white liberal suburbs of Marin County in the late 1960s, we used to say, “Eenie meenie miney mo, catch a nigger by the toe,” called Brazil nuts “nigger toes,” and when someone asked, “Where’d you get that?,” the response was, “Stole it off a dead nigger.”

Because the one African-American girl in Scan0029my elementary was so beautiful, but so different from me, and the time she invited me to sleep over, I felt so strange at being the only white person in the house that I never slept over again.

Because when I was in junior high, we watched “Roots” on TV and saw the story of slavery in America, and then named our black cat Kunta Kinte and my sister’s sheep Kizzy.

Because the most strikingly odd groups at my white high school were the exchange students from Germany and Norway, or the handful of punk rockers dyeing their hair blue or green in 1979.

Because I never talked to the one African-American boy in our class, and to this day I still don’t know his name.

Because my father still says things like “black as the ace of spades.”

Because as a young adult, although I was beginning to meet people of color, of all colors, I still used to say that Richmond (CA) was where all the black people lived and was careful never to go there.

Because I married into a Nicaraguan family, I got to hear skin-toned racism as my then-husband swore at African-Americans and Afro-Hispanics.

Because I learned from them that being “pure Spanish” (white and cultured) was better than being “puro jincho” (a peasant, a country hick).

Because when I was suddenly a single mother in 1986 and went down to the welfare office to see about getting help, and was one of few white women there, in shame, I never returned.

Because when I married again, into a Portuguese family, I found myself sitting in a relative’s trailer home watching the Super Bowl in 1991, when Whitney Houston sang the most beautiful rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” and listening to a spew of racist slurs from the man of the house. He said he’d rather kill himself than ever hear the song sung by a black person, and I did not speak up. (But I told my then-husband I’d never go back, which was something.)

In between then and now, I grew, I learned, I opened up and am continuing to ruthlessly self-examine my words and my actions as a citizen of the human race. I don’t always succeed.

Because as I now examine my family’s American history, I find slaveholders among them, as well as casual racism in every generation (the vintage Valentine above is from my grandmother’s childhood scrapbook, circa 1910).

Because it took so long for consciousness to dawn, and for me to understand and own my own racism, I offer this apology to my African-American brothers and sisters for not speaking up before, and my pledge to be an ally going forward.

As we all are, I am a work in progress. May my movement be forward, never backward. It’s not about guilt. It’s about being accountable and owning our history.

May I be as brave, some day, as Bree Newsome, who climbed the flagpole in Charleston and pulled down the Confederate flag, in seeking to change the world.

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10 Replies to “Because I Haven’t Known What to Say”

  1. We as human beings are not perfect, or even close. We’re all on a journey (hopefully) to try to improve ourselves and contribute to making a better world…It takes a huge amount of character and courage to subject that process to the scrutiny of the outside world. Kudos to you, my friend.

  2. Thank you for writing this Julia. Your thoughts are in real-time and it means a lot to me. I say to me, because I, like you just did here, can only speak for my own feelings. It’s a pleasure to have you in my circle of friends. Life should always be an evolving process.

  3. We all must do this. We all must list our “because I’s.” We must admit, examine, and call out and move forward. The more people see folks doing this, the closer we come to changing this ridiculous, at times heartbreaking, and too often violent world, the more we can be true ally’s. I’m making my list, now. Thank you for showing me how.

  4. I appreciate the honesty in this post. There’s a temptation to put out into the public sphere only things that are tidy and fully evolved and finished, but that’s rarely where you find the stories that help us relate to each other. Thanks for sharing your story.

  5. Well said. For the last twelve days I have been running the events in my head, and our understated response as those who benefit from white privilege. Speaking up and owning us is a crucial first step.

  6. Oh Julia. You speak for so many of us…it was only as a teenager did I learn that I was raised in a county in Southern Michigan with the largest chapter of the KKK in the mid-western United States. I said nothing, and did nothing—I moved away and have returned only a hand full of times over the years. It makes me sick to my stomach to even think about it. I am continually working to break this ridiculous programming.

    My father who was dying of cancer on his death bed hoped he would die before President Obama was sworn into office because “I do not want to live to see a black president.” He died two days before the inauguration. I ran to his apartment to watch the Inauguration in its entirety on his TV!! I had to do it!

    I think it would benefit us all to start to do exploratory surgery on our own beliefs. I have my own list, “Because when….” and fill in the blank to explore our own personal beliefs and programming around our heritage/race can we hope to heal the wounds that have been created. Thank you for such heart felt writing!

  7. Julia,
    Thanks for being brutally honest, aka “messy”. I would love to see some form of gun control, as well.

  8. Such an interesting read. I think the issue is so much more than ‘race’; it’s about man’s inhumanity to man. If your ‘because’ had been in relation to someone’s social background or their height, or hair colour, or beliefs, would it make a difference? The ‘because’ is found in every corner of the world, though its wrongness is perceived differently. Of course, we each must deal with our biggest ‘becauses’, but let’s go beyond these and reflect on our humanity / inhumanity to each other whatever our reasons maybe. This is how lasting change will truly come. Unfortunately, I don’t have that much faith in human nature, it’s easier to focus on issues as opposed to underlying principles. So, if it’s not race, it’ll be gender, or religion, or social status etc. What do all these have in common? Injustice! And for me, tackling this is fundamental to change.

    Sorry if I’ve rambled on, I have quite strong opinions on the issue of racism. Just in case you’re wondering, I’m of African origin. Thanks for your reflection and the courage to go where many won’t dare. It’s a fab contribution to a very important topic. #MondayBlogs

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