Yesterday morning my husband and I lay in bed, each of us on our phones reading the latest news headlines. They were dismaying, yet again.
The president decided to jump into a sports debate about kneeling, creating a frenzy in the sports world and many protests in return. This came on the heels of racially charged issues all over the US: most recently in Missouri, deaths at a rally in Charleston and once again escalating tensions/unrest seemingly everywhere. Our family has watched in dismay.
I turned and looked at my husband.
“I don’t have the worlds largest platform” I told him “But do I have a responsibility to speak out in front of the one I have been given?” I asked.
He nodded his head, slowly yes. “Not saying anything…is just as bad.”
This is my humble attempt to do just that, to share our story.
My experience, most of my life, was growing up in your typical Caucasian family. I didn’t think much about racial matters, because they didn’t really affect me as a kid. That’s an important thing to note. It is hard to understand or empathize with another person, and their plight, if you have no understanding of what they are walking through.
Even in widowhood this was my experience. I would write about the things I was going through, in an effort to raise awareness of the difficulties a widow endures, but the only ones who could truly understand the road I was walking was a fellow widow. So it is with many of the issues at the forefront of today’s headlines.
My first experience with racism of any sort was when I entered into a serious relationship with a boy in Highschool who would eventually become my husband. This boy was kind, smart, talented, funny, loving and caring. He also happened to be African American.
I list his ethnicity last on the list of importance because to us both, the color of each other’s skin was the thing that mattered the least. We met, we had a connection, we started to fall in love….oh yeah and his skin was dark, mine was light. Big Deal. Only to some it was.
It took about three months of dating before it happened. He and I, walking hand in hand, at our school’s Fall Festival. My boyfriend turned to the side to say Hello to a friend and that’s when a middle-aged man walked through the crowd making a beeline to me. He came right up close and whispered something in my ear:
“Gross” he said.
I pulled back, momentarily confused at what he could be talking about. He must have noticed my confusion so he nodded to my boyfriend, then nodded back to me.
“Gross” he said with a bit more firmness.
Just like that he was gone as suddenly as he had arrived. My boyfriend hadn’t even noticed the exchange until he turned around and saw the look on my face. I quickly caught him up on what had just occurred. A look of anger flashed in his eyes, followed by pain…and then, resoluteness.
“Don’t let it bother you,” he said calmly. “I’m used to stuff like this, just…don’t let it bother you. It’s ok.”
Most of the time I didn’t.
I learned to ignore the comments from boys in my class when they would call me certain names because I wasn’t dating a fellow Caucasian. I learned to ignore the character assassinations from people who insisted I was only in this relationship for “shock value”. I learned to ignore the stares from others when he and I would enter a room together.
Did it hurt? Of course it did. But in the end it didn’t matter much, because what mattered most was our love. And we both knew that love was pure and true.
Here we are 22 years later. I would like to say we as a people have evolved and things are completely different. Sadly this is not the case. Sometimes what we experience is subtle, people staring at us a little too long when we enter an eating establishment; other times it is overt, both of us walking into a clothing store where I am greeted with a hearty Hello and he with stone-cold silence.
There have been days when people purposefully let doors slam in our faces when we were walking right behind them and other days when my Husband is followed around a store like a criminal when all he wanted to do was look around. These are normal aspects of our life together as an African American male married to a Caucasian female. In the end, we are like most others who don’t let the opinions of people dictate their life. Our love is our love, and if people don’t like it, too bad.
Where my heart starts to hurt is on days like yesterday. My Facebook wall filled with posts, each side wanting to prove why their opinion is right and valid. Each wanting their voice heard at all costs. Yet at the end of the day, are we a greater people because of any of it? Is anything solved? Is anything better?
I don’t want to debate the ways the police are handling situations with African American males. I also don’t want to debate the usefulness of standing/not standing for a national anthem.
My point is simply this:
To say we live in a world where “racism doesn’t exist” or we have “come so far” is a trite way of using platitudes to completely disregard how far we still have to go. I will politely refute anyone who tries to tell me racism is a fallacy. I say my Caucasian-Hispanic-African American-mixed family experiences it, to some degree, nearly every day.
When I was 21 years old I had the unique experience of living and working with kids for a stint in one of New Yorks roughest inner-city’s. I saw things during my time there that I can never un-see. I saw the inequality. I saw the leeriness of certain people simply because of their skin color. I saw one ethnicity rising against the other. I saw the neighborhood’s fear and mistrust for people in positions of authority. I saw the helplessness. It’s real and it’s heartbreaking on many levels.
Yet unless you go there, or you live it, you would never believe it is happening. It’s easy to call something false if you’ve never experienced it for yourself.
We can debate, all the day long, about the need for leaders to rise up within their own community. All that is well and good. But where are the leaders, in all communities, who will rise up against injustice on every level?
I understand the helplessness people feel on both sides of the coin. There are people, my same shade of skin, who feel wholly unequipped on how to deal with issues of racism and inequality. They understand these things are happening, but they don’t quite know what to do about it. We can talk, until we’re blue in the face about the problem, but what is the smallest beginning of a solution? I asked my husband just that.
“We just want people to treat us, the same way they treat each other.” He said.
Simple, yet so profound.
Treat everyone the same.
When I was in High school everyone in our drama class had to memorize and recite some sort of monologue. I chose Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. What strikes me the most about his speech is the simplicity of his stated desires, how even 54 years later they still ring just as true as ever. How Mr. King implores our nation to uphold its value that “all men are created equal”. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s about. The golden rule. Do unto others, as you would have them do to you.
Or in my husband’s simple words, treat everyone the same.
On this great big planet earth we are all different shades of ONE skin.
We may not understand what it is like to live the life of someone of a different ethnicity. But it is our duty to value each one, their experience and their story. To link arms with them and say-I may not understand but I will seek to understand.
May greater levels of empathy arise. May we sit with others in their pain. May we be moved to response.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
-Martin Luther King Jr.”
*To hear more from Sarah, and to follow along on her journey, click HERE.
To see her life in action click HERE to view her Vlog.
Sarah’s Memoir “From Depths We Rise” is in stores now.