I missed the moment.
I missed the moment. And I missed it by over two decades — but here I go anyway.
I was sitting in a classroom in upscale Plainsboro, New Jersey. The seats were desk and chair all in one with a basket below the chair. They were always cold, I remember, and uncomfortable. The middle school was a new building, a jewel in a district that was itself a jewel, one of the best public schools in the state. In this district, if you took all the classes the school had to offer, you had the chance to take college level courses not at the community college but at Princeton University. It is Lake Wobegon but with BMWs: everyone is above average. The student body was fairly diverse, with many people whose parents were born outside the United States.
My memory of the teacher, and much of the class, is fuzzy. It was seventh grade. The classroom was arranged in a u-shape, with the teacher’s desk near the windows. The course was social studies, and I think we did a broad overview of American history. I remember the teacher as a balding white guy, prone to sweating — an affliction I share — and he was a coach for track and field. Nice enough guy.
Surely not racist.
But now, twenty-odd years later, I recall him saying something deeply racist. And I let it go.
Now, it is bothering me.
I’ve been wondering what to do about it for a while. I wanted to reach out to the student this happened to, and apologize to her personally, but you know, she wasn’t waiting for me to say something. She spoke for herself, and quite well, back then. But you know, it wasn’t the student of color who was really hurt by my silence, but my peers. She already knew the truth, but what about the other people in that class?
I can’t remember exactly how this happened. Truthfully, mercifully, I don’t remember much of middle school, but I do remember this moment. One of the black kids in class was talking about her skin color. If I am remembering correctly, she said essentially that she would never know who it was that made her skin so light, who it was that raped her enslaved ancestor and left her light-skinned.
Our teacher asked, “How do you know it was rape? What if they were in love?”
What if they were in love? What if they were in love? What if they were in love!
What if the man who owned your ancestor was “in love” with his property?
It’s absurd. It is the sort of revisionist history that romanticizes slavery and early America. This is the myth of the benevolent slave-owner. It’s a lie. The mental gymnastics required are intense: some “kindly” human trafficker happened to fall in love with the less-than-a-person that he was raping.
And I didn’t say anything. As far as I can remember, the line of questioning died down and my peer didn’t push the conversation any longer.
I should have said something.
I knew that was wrong.
Not just wrong: delusional.
I should have said something not to try to change the teacher’s mind, but because it is my job, because silence is consent, and because white folks need to start calling each other out on our racist shit. We have to call out the garbage, to speak truth, and to tell my fellow people of privilege, enough is enough. Tell the truth about our collective past.
No, my classmate’s ancestor was not in love with the white man who owned her and raped her. There is no romanticizing the atrocity of slavery.
Sorry, dear classmate, that I didn’t do better then. I know better now, so I’m trying to do better.