Privileged And Safe: Reflecting On My Childhood In The South
These days I’ve been noticing that I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to say to the people who have been silenced for so long.
I see their rage and fury.
I know these feelings are deeply rooted in our collective history. I grew up in South Georgia, in a small town called Millen, in the 50s and 60s.
I knew even as a child that I had rights and privileges that black people did not have.
No one had to say the words out loud that they thought blacks were inferior (although many did).
I could never understand the inequity or the reason for this kind of thinking. I’m ashamed that this was the ideology I grew up around. I am sick to my stomach that these were the messages I received.
Growing up in the South
I was taught to just accept things as they were.
“Colored people are separate and less than whites.”
This is the way it was. No explanation.
I use the word ‘colored’ because this was the word that was used at the time.
I didn’t understand when I was 8 years old and driving through my grandfather’s farm that there were ‘colored’ men and women picking cotton, sweating and wiping blood from their hands as the roughness of the cotton bolls scratched them.
I remember thinking to myself, what did I do that I’m riding in this car and they’re out there in the fields doing the back-breaking work for us?
I knew the answer, even at that young age.
I didn’t do anything to deserve my good fortune.
I just knew that I was lucky to have been born white in a world that was full of inequities and a hierarchy system, where whites were assumed superior.
It was confusing to me as a child. I was told that they weren’t as smart as we were, that they had to have their own schools. They were not welcome in our churches. “Because they have their own churches.”
I grew up with ‘white’ water fountains and ‘colored’ water fountains… side by side. At the movie theater, the blacks sat up in the balcony while whites sat down below. There were bathrooms that said ‘colored’ bathrooms on the door and ‘white’ bathrooms.
No one that I knew questioned it. It was the way it was.
Two black women cleaned our house for their lifetimes. Emma was first and worked for us for 21 years until she died.
Dannie replaced Emma and worked for my mother for over 40 years until my mother died.
I loved Emma and Dannie. They were part of our family.
And yet, they never sat down at the table and ate with us. And they would never dream of using the toilet inside our house, rather they used the toilet attached to the garage which was to be only used by “The Help.”
They had no voice. They were oppressed.
Today when I think about this, I know it was a form of brainwashing. As an adult, it is horrifying to realize that this way of thinking was acceptable, that it was the way of life in Millen, Georgia.
Complacent and complicit?
I didn’t have any idea what it meant to be black during that time in Millen. Because I never asked.
I was shielded from all the ugly stories like the Klu Klux Klan and the lynchings that had come before.
I had what I needed and wanted and I never felt afraid. My life was safe.
I’m not sure it helps anyone to feel guilty about growing up like this in the South. It won’t take away the pain they suffered at the hands of white people. It won’t change anything.
As I watch the protesters and hear their voices, as I listen to people on social media, it is clear to me that I have never understood what they’ve been through and I’ll never know.
I own my past and my history and while I can’t change it, I have full control over what I can do now.
Sitting back and doing nothing is unacceptable.
As I wrestle with what to say and do now as you may be also doing, these are a few things I’m learning to do:
- Listen to the speeches, stories, and pain around you, with empathy.
- Ask your black friend, your coworker, your neighbor what has been their experience?
- Say something. Even if it’s the wrong thing (and it will be often), it’s still better to say that you want to help, that you want to listen. That you acknowledge that their voices haven’t been heard.
- Speak up when you hear racist comments or when you see an injustice. Do not allow others to justify their behavior or words.
- Support black businesses. Donate money to black groups to support their communities.
Here are a couple of resources I recommend you read and listen to.
Corinne Shutack’s article 75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice
Tara Brach’s podcast A Courageous Presence with Racism
Tara Brach is a Buddhist, mindfulness psychotherapist who has a podcast and gives talks and meditations. She asks you to imagine what it would be like to be frightened for your son or daughter, to worry every day of your life that the police will stop them and hurt them.
I want to live in a world where all people are treated fairly. I want to believe that we are creating this world, that we are listening, and that the hatred is dying out.
It’s up to all of us to take action.
Over to you:
What will you do now to help combat racism?