Today, I write from Indonesia, a country celebrating the 72nd anniversary of its independence. As I stare out my window onto the rice fields below, I see several giant newly raised Indonesian flags. The same wind currents that normally house the ubiquitous locally made kites, now lift these proud symbols of patriotism. “Merdeka!” (Freedom!) was once the rallying cry during the country’s fight for autonomy from the Dutch and is used on this day as a greeting. Hearing this phrase used today, so proudly and so casually, I can’t help but think of the current state of affairs in the US and how this same greeting in our country today could be seen as an act of resistance.
I’ve now spent almost five years living abroad in as many countries. I love to travel and I am privileged to be able to do so. I am privileged to be American. I am privileged to hold a citizenship which allows for such freedom of mobility. It is my daily privilege to act as an ambassador for the United States. Even when it is hard to do so. Even when I am tired and jetlagged and haven’t slept in a day and a half and all I want to do is eat something fried and drink a beer and go to bed and the last thing I want to do is engage in a political conversation. Even then, it is my privilege. Because once you cross the United States border, choosing not to talk about politics is no longer your privilege.
I don’t live outside the US because I hate my country. I love America. America has granted me every opportunity I’ve ever been given. America welcomed my immigrant father; a naturalization which gave me breathe. America gave me an education many would envy. America taught me to be curious and think critically; all qualities which fueled my interest in understanding other cultures and points of view. America also taught me a great deal about silence and how dangerous not speaking up can be. This lesson is now what I keep coming back to as I try to evaluate just exactly what brings us to this current state of affairs.
There is an old southern saying that you don’t talk about “religion, politics, and money” in polite company. Race would be the fourth in that list, but it’s too taboo to talk about how you don’t talk about it. This is silence. The history of white silence is long and complex and painful and I am not the person to write that tome. But, I am the one to tell my story. I grew up in Atlanta in the early 1990s. Atlanta is often called the city “too busy to hate;” another idiom which, of course, is ridiculous and untrue, but catchy. That said, Atlanta is a very diverse and progressive city and volumes could be, and have been, written on the city’s role in the Civil Rights movement. THAT said, no city is immune to injustice.
My neighborhood was mostly white, but I went to a public elementary school that was a part of a highly controversial program called Majority-to-Minority. M-to-M was designed to desegregate the DeKalb County School System by busing black students from predominantly black schools into better predominantly white schools. As a child, I had no idea what M-to-M stood for or what the program’s intentions were. No adult ever discussed it with me. I knew that my black friends at school took the M-to-M buses and that those buses left a little bit earlier than mine. I did not understand that they left early because they lived far away. I did not understand that they were waking up at 4am in some cases in order to get to school. I knew my black friends were a different color than me, which I could see, but no one had ever told me we were different. It was never discussed.
Then, around sixth grade there was a shift. We were eleven and twelve years old and our hormones were kicking in. My girlfriends and I were thinking about boys. And not just the idea of boys, but actual boys. Boys that we could kiss. Boys in our class. Boys we’d been friends with for years. Some of those boys were black.
The first time any adult ever discussed race with me outside the context of Social Studies class was when a friend’s mother caught my friend and I kissing two of our black friends in her basement one day after school. We were kids and they were quick pecks. Smooches. Her mother calmly and politely sent the boys home, sat us down, and explained to us not so calmly or politely that it was not appropriate for “little white girls” to be going around with “little black boys.” She told me she wouldn’t tell my mother “this time.” As if I had been caught stealing or cheating in school. Which, in a child’s mind, the thought process that followed was: Well, if we aren’t supposed to be dating black boys, maybe we shouldn’t be hanging out with our black girlfriends as much either?
It was my first kiss and it was sweet and innocent and the most exciting moment of my young life and I was made to feel ashamed. On top of this I also felt confused about what was now expected of me socially and why this was all of a sudden changing. It was at this moment that I understood racism and injustice and blind hatred was alive and well among people I knew and among people I admired even. I understood then that there were things some white folks would never say in front of black folks, but would quite comfortably discuss amongst other white folks. I understood these things happened, but I did not fully understand their implications. But, I always understood is was wrong. It is a conversation I have thought about regularly my entire life and it is one that I’ve not shared with anyone for the 23 years since it happened. I suspect because, painfully, it is an idea I may have accepted for longer than I would like to admit and because I felt ashamed and guilty.
I was a kid who didn’t feel empowered to talk back to an adult then. Now, I am an adult and I have power and I am scared of what I see happening in our country. I do not know how to fix this, but I know that white folks talking about it is a good start. If we are too scared or uncomfortable to talk about the problem of racism in the white community — be it passive or blatant — racial tensions in this country will not dissipate, but will only continue to fester. I hope that parents are having more open and honest conversations with their children today about race. I know many of you are. If we are too busy to have these hard conversations, there will always be time for hate.
White privilege is having these stories and choosing to hide them. Freedom is no longer having stories you need to hide.