In my first weeks of my first year of teaching, when I was still adjusting to being the only white lady in the room, I asked the kids to get out a pencil. A boy in front, so dark that the students around him referred to him as “Black” as though it were his name, with thin, chin length locks bouncing around his head, stooped down to his backpack.
In that split second my heart began to race and my palms began to sweat, as though someone were coming after me or my not yet born baby girls. “He has a gun” I thought. “He is reaching for his gun.” I calculated how many steps it would take to get to the emergency button…too many. “What are you doing?” I snapped, saying his name sharp and loud like the gunshot I feared.
“I thought you told us to take out a pencil,” he replied showing me his brand new mechanical pencil in his favorite color. A splurge for the beginning of the school year.
I am sure my face turned red. I learned that semester that blushing is a hazard when you are the only white girl in the room. My shame crawled onto my face, hot and sticky.
In the spring of that year I heard the tale of an older brother being shot for making the mistake of reaching for his vibrating cell phone out of habit. The assumption was he was reaching for the gun he did not carry. He died in the arms of his little sister, the white dress she wore to school for her seventeenth birthday stained with the memory of her brother’s death. I know because she was in my poetry club. She wrote about it. That story never made the national news; no newspaper in the country was interested in the tale. So I keep the story in my filing cabinet. I want to make sure that someone remembers.
Two years later, between my second and third years, I found out when checking my email a few days before school started that one of my former students had been shot and killed over the summer. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong skin color. His death hadn’t even made the local news. My principal had to email me about it, just in case I cared.
Trayvon Martin is not the first young black man to be shot simply because of the way he appears. And sadly, he won’t be the last. Everyone keeps asking, “How could something like this happen?” But sometimes not only does this happen, it doesn’t even make the news.
I am a woman who wanted to teach in an all black school. I chose it. I was raised by parents who didn’t blink an eye when my sister started dating a black man. Uncle Calvin is one of my daughter’s very favorite people. I would never hesitate to ask him to watch my girls. Yet, when a certain type of student, classified that way simply by his dark skin color his hair and his propensity for saggy pants, reached into his bag I assumed he was reaching for his weapon. Even when I had instructed him to get a pencil.
My parents did not teach me to think that way. I didn’t even know I did think that way until I had the thought. No one in my college classes suggested to me that I needed to fear my black male students. And yet, I did. Where did that come from?
Everyone wants to talk about how horrible George Zimmerman is (and he is) and how terrible his actions were (and they were). But not very many people are talking about how we live in a society that teaches us to fear black men. Not even men, any black kid over the age of 10 or so could be a threat. If we look into our own selves we can identify just an inkling of the thoughts that sparked George Zimmerman’s behavior.
We live in a society that perpetuates thoughts. The things that I have watched and listened to my whole life have encouraged my mind to think one way. The wrong way. I don’t like admitting that I have racist thoughts, but the only way to get rid of them is to identify them. Once those thoughts are identified, we can start calling other people out on them. We can refuse to watch things that perpetuate those stereotypes. We can begin to call things as we seem them. As unacceptable.
I would like to believe that Trayvon Martin’s murder is just the case of one crazy vigilante. It would be easier for me to see it that way. But I would really like for this to never happen again. That has to happen one person at a time, one mind readjustment and I am starting with me. And I am coming after you next.
Lord God, please save me from my own racism, help me identify it. Save my family, my husband, my children, from unacceptable judgement of others, others who are made in Your image. I cry out to you God, when it feels like there’s nothing else I can do to save innocent thoughts, innocent lives, except ask you to continue to change me and save me. Amen
Thank you Abby
Amen. Thanks for being my sister.
Your post is touching. Thank you for your transparency. My prayer is similar that I not misjudge the intentions of those around me because of the ill-intentions of some. It is a terrible burden to suspect every white person, even if for a moment, of secretly hating me because of my race.
I am truly touched by this post, by its honesty, courage and sensitivity. The Travon Martin situation makes me angry, but people like you continuously renew my hope in humanity whenever some fool tries to extinguish it. Thank you.
This post is so profound.
This travesty comes in the wake of another young black male being killed. This young man went missing in Dekalb County. When he was found he had been beaten and shot in the head. His mother is my oldest friend. I don’t remember NOT knowing her, or her children. We are so distraught by this tragedy. Both young men were, I’m sure, not bothering anyone. Just minding their own business before they were both gunned down. Both unarmed, and both probably destined for success in the world. Another black male not allowed to live up to his potential.
Treyvon didn’t know his killer, but Jamal knew his killers. Either way the world has lost what could have been the cure to AIDS, cancer, the gas situation, who knows? We will never know now.
By the way, I think the same way when I see a bunch of white boys/males. Can’t help it.
Thank you for letting me share.
Love you, Cat
I grieve for your friend who is clearly more like family to you. It is so scary to me. That is my county the one I live in. I can no longer pretend that this happens only to those I taught in their neighbor hood. I might be that mom. My sister might be that mom.
I love you, and your honesty. I am praying that your friend feels the grace and peace that only Jesus can give. And I am praying for them. This has to stop.
Thanks for sharing, Abby. I’ve had many of those same thoughts. You might be interested in Charles Barkley’s book, “Who’s Afraid of a Large Black Man?”
Abby, I don’t know you but someone just left a link on my blog to your post, and I wanted to let you know how much I appreciate it. Your humility and honesty are what we all need. It always grieves me when I hear white friends say with such defensiveness and assurance, “I’m not racist!” because I see the racism in myself, despite years of thinking about it and working on it. How much more must it unconsciously influence those who refuse to acknowledge it?
One of the most beautiful phrases I heard when I taught in the community I wrote about was “when you know better you do better.” I know better. So I am going to do better. But I couldn’t do better if I didn’t know.
I know. Someone I know’s response to this post was “I never have those thoughts.” I thought, “are you lying to yourself, or just me. Because that is not true.” How could you honestly thing you don’t have an occasional racist thought? I hate the way saying something someone said is racist is the same thing as accusing them of being in the KKK. We are never going to get over this if we don’t talk about it, and what other word to use is there but racist?
Thank you for writing this, Abby. It is admirable that you were willing to admit and write this and share it with everyone. I hope to read more of the same from others, like myself, who think these thoughts as well although not racist. Society has imbedded these disgusting thoughts and views into the minds of its people. This is a great start to an end of racism as it stands.
I just want to say I am a 17 year old young black male. I would like to tell you that I appreciate your honesty about your misconceptions about African-Americans. We all judge somebody in one way or another. Racism is just another form. No matter how self-righteous we feel that we are, we all have some judgement within ourselves that we need to address. Thank you for identifying that. God Bless.
Very wise for 17.
God bless you sir. I can’t wait to hear about the amazing things you grow in to.
This is one of the most thoughtful pieces I’ve read about this tragedy. Thank you for your honesty.
This is a great self reflection of your feelings and thoughts. I commend you for your honesty as a White person with enough courage to admit your own racist thoughts especially considering the fact that you work with Black children everyday. This doesn’t make you a bad person because of those thoughts. It does make you human. We all have thoughts of some nature regarding other races for various reasons. I just want those that read your post to reflect as well and imagine the history of Black men and women in this country. It has been a extremely difficult journey. Imagine if you were not willing to face your shame in your thoughts and actions towards that child. He would be a constant reminder of your own shortcomings and in another scenario with some other person, he may have had to endure being targeted for poor treatment or subjected to racial profiling. Imagine what this does to the psyche of a young person & how it may cause them to act out through the encouragement of self fufilling prophesies. We need compassion healing and understanding to move forward together. But, first we all need to be honest about our thoughts!
Very nice. Very well written and beautiful thoughts, albeit about your own imperfections. We all have them, and we all have to deal with them. Thank you for opening up and sharing your heart.
Your transparency is refreshing… I cannot say more… share it on my page
wow white ppl who actually get it. what a glimmer of hope in what can seem like such a hopeless society…
I don’t cry often, but I cried as I read this post. I am African-American and have a son who is 13. I love him with my life and cannot imagine losing him this way. I want to thank you for you candor, Abby. I know the pain of being judged by skin color and not by character. I remember the whispers, the individuals who would not meet my gaze, the comments made in ignorance. I had hoped the world would be different when I was forty and I am bitterly disappointed that my son must receive the same speech his ancestors received; that he must watch his friends closer than his enemies and be twice as good as the next person at anything he does, and that despite his efforts he will still be hated by some simply because he is black. However, your post gives me hope that there are still those with integrity. May your efforts encourage others to examine themselves and follow suit.
My husband and I have plans to adopt out of the foster care system sometime in the future. The day my 17 year old shared with me about her brother I came home completely shaken. I remember talking with my husband about the reality of the things we will likely have to teach a boy (if we got a boy, the reality is any child we adopt in Atlanta will likely be black) about the double standards and how to navigate them simply to stay alive. It was a new thought for me. I still ponder it regularly.
Is it possible to repost this screed on my webpage? We are all battling with inner demons (Excuse the harsh word, used for expediency). My name and email are included in your posting requirements.
I think the harsh word is necessary. It is what it is. I have a baby to put to bed and then I will email you about reposting this.
The work is done…….. and linked into a few additional comments.
Thanks for sharing as a black man it encourages me. Lord help us all to deal with our racist within and love one another!
I’d like to let you know that I appreciate your honesty. If there is any blessing from the death of Trayvon Martin, it’s the gift of dialogue.
Being involved in an inter-racial relationship I often find myself baffled & confused by the lack of awareness of others. It is not necessarily a fault of their own.
I’ve lived in a lot of places and realize that ignorance sometimes is the result of geographic location &/or exposure. So for many white Americans, they are playing catch up in the cultural & social parts. Often in places where different races must co-exist (I.e. Atlanta “the south”, N.E. US & California (maybe Texas)) there is a better understanding of the issues that plague one another; therefore, creating empathy that might not exist west of the Mississippi and east of Oregon, which leaves a big chunk of the country. (need we mention Alaska & Hawaii???) That Chunk is playing catch up. I’m not taking away the individuals ability to see above racism, but as a whole, there’s work to be done.
It’s difficult watching my daughters mother (white) struggle to make sense of the difficulties our daughter (black & white) will have to face due to her perceived race (black). Also, watching her live through our daughter and accepting the reality of a “privileged life” is equally difficult to witness. Suddenly it’s as if she’s taken on a new burden which seems unfair, but is a situation I’ve had to deal with my entire life.
I realize that Trayvon Martin’s shooting has caused people to be more aware of our racial situation more than any time recently. Not even the hanging in 1981 in Mobile, Alabama drew this much attention.
At a time when I’ve started to just lose faith in humanity, I read post like yours and am elated (although I’m typically reserved in public).
Often I find myself explaining to people (black) that white people are able to feel our pain and relate. It’s just a matter of all of us being able to look deep down within ourselves and be honest.
Thank you for your article. I’ve already shared your writing with my friends on face book!
My first year in Atlanta (from the mostly white mid-west) I started teaching at an all black school and my husband got a job as the debate coach at Morehouse college. I will forever be indebted to my students and especially the men of Morehouse for patiently showing me the truth. Traveling with a group of the smartest, most well spoken men on the planet and then see the way they were treated in some places. It was eye opening to say the least.
I do not know if I can find the words to express my gratefulness for your openness. I am an African-American female and attended Spelman College and am married to a Morehouse Man. Ironically, I also did C-X or cross examination debate. In high school I was told at our district tournament and while going up against some of the top teams who flew to Harvard each year (who we defeated, once given the chance to compete), that we, our all African-American team, were not fit to even be in the room with the debaters… the judges suggested that maybe, an athletic sporting event competition would certainly suit us better. My husband, who earned a full scholarship to Morehouse and was a National Merit Scholar, was told by his white female guidance counselor to not even apply to college, but to go to work at the textile mill because that would be the best fit for his “skill set.”
Instances, such as the aforementioned, can leave any individual jaded. It can make one question the character and outlook of an entire race, and to feel something unnatural when interacting with another person. It causes one to feel tense when around a certain colour – to always be on guard and protective, and uncomfortable around that race. But then, God does the unexpected and miraculous. He takes someone like you and reminds people like me who have lived what I have lived, and endured what I have endured, that within humanity there is always the capacity for change – all we must do is reach,
As you reach to me, in the solace of my mind, I commit to reach to you until the healing that needs to be done covers us both, until our minds touch and our hearts fully know that we are truly brother and sister. We will reach until love, respect, and trust is shared as widely and commonly as the prejudice that populates the Earth. Thank you for reminding me and inspiring within me the ability to reach.
Morehouse men are pretty smart, but nothing in Comparison to a Tuskegee Man!
I’m a young black male and i grew up in the ghetto I live in a gated community now so it’s kinda silly seeing how people are afraid of me and don’t know anything about me… But hey black people use to be afraid of white people not to long ago and I’m sure u can remember why. It’s fine to address the problems we face in this crazy world but a lot of things are simply human nature I can’t lie I could care less about half the people I see everyday because Im more concerned with surviving providing for my family and receiving the blessings that i only can get through a heart filled with love instead of hate. I guess that’s the one thing most black people don’t get about some whites, u mean to tell me your life is so care free and hateful that the most important thing your thinking about right now is this black person or people in the room who 9 times out of ten has no concern about u even being in there… Evil is evil and every race has evil people but when your evil is looked over simply because of your skin color or your skin color automatically makes u evil the world is a sadder place than we believe it to be
Im glade to see that u have some people n this world thats willing to admit their wrongs and thats wiling to correct it.
I appreciate your sharing these thoughts. So honest, so real and ones that many of us share. Thank you for being courageous enough to spark this dialog. It is always so easy for us to see the perceived faults or wrong doings of others. It is so easy to climb up to the mountain top and scream injustice. It, however, is usually not so easy to see and admit our part in perpetuating said wrong doings and injustices via our patterns of thought and our reactions to various situations and people in the world on a daily basis. Even more challenging still, taking the necessary actions required to change. So many of us are intolerant and prejudice on various issues…We Must Confront the -isms. Change starts with confronting our personal biases. Change always starts with the man or woman in the mirror and it truly happens one person at a time. Thank you again for sharing so openly.
As a minority, your sincerity and humility affirms what I believe is a shift that is taking place that needs to happen in our culture. Racism carries with it some denial. Many people will go out of their way to fiend their compassion and tolerance towards minorities. But that is not what is required. What is required is honesty, such as you have admitted here. We carry thoughts of prejudices, and we all fall well short in our dealings with one another. But all is well. For it is not our thoughts, our social conditioning, our ideas, our beliefs, our prejudices that define who we truly are. Who we truly are is immaculate, shining. People are diamonds, but most want to stay layered in coal. But they begin to shine through when turning an honest eye to see what is actually going on in the heart and mind. This is the value of truth, despite all the pain that comes through seeking it. Truth will eventually show you that you can have any thoughts, good or bad, and look at them from the still center of your heart and say “these are just thoughts” or “these are just social conditioning”. They are not who/what I am, but rather a reflection; a shadow shown by casting the light of awareness onto the form called “mind”. This form is molded and shaped by experience. But while the mind may change, one thing never does. And that is what we are. It is indeed a blessing to know who and what one is. Because no word, no quality can be pointed to and stated with truth, “I am that”. What we are is beyond words, forms, colors, and thoughts. It is beyond beyond. Such grace.
Thank you for writing from the heart; that takes considerable courage. You may wish to read a book I published entitled The Middle Theory (www.themiddletheory.com). It is an inspired work that is empowering readers across the globe. The issue of race is addressed.
As a person of color I can respect the honesty here.
It is indeed unfortunate that we all do not apply the same self analysis and arrive at such a rational conclusion. We can all start, should start with the “man in the mirror.”
This was great. Thanks for opening up
and sharing. My sister-in-law posted it on her page . I’m glad she did.
Love this, thanks for sharing!
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Oh friend I just love this post so much. Thanks for sharing the truth.
Powerful post, Abby. Until we acknowledge our own racist thoughts (and we all have them, no matter what race we are), we’ll never be able to move forward. We need to have more honest conversations, which needs to be followed up with concrete actions- in our relationships, in systemic racism, in our neighborhoods and churches and so on.
Now to figure out my part in it all.
Accidental devotional…part of what you say is true, however unless you were there for the Trayvon incident, you don’t know what you are talking about…you are speculating…and you certainly have no right to call Zimmerman a horrible person. If YOU were a good and not HORRIBLE person, you would leave judging people to the one above. This goes for everyone, and all races. Obviously either no one else “got” what I got out of your article, or they want to be like everyone else out there and join the bandwagon and not bring out the obvious. Please keep your accusations of people to yourself.
Now Jen, your comments only illustrate the need for dialogue. Your avoidance of an issue by acting as if its merely people wishing to get on the bandwagon is exactly the problem.
It appears you don’t look at history and see.
This woman was merely sharing her thoughts and experience and here you come with your obvious bigotry and only show that you are no where comfortable with accepting your role in perpetuating such ignorance. So you yourself jump on the other bandwagon of ignorance.
The privilege of being white and acting as if your logic is the prevailing logic has expired.
Didn’t your mother teach you ” if you don’t have anything important to say…….”
If you don’t want to add to the dialogue with meaningful discussion……go to Rush Limbaugh’s page.
1881airmen…. These people are more concerned with defending a man who should have remained in his vehicle. A man who surely categorized profiled) young Martin (without cause), labeled, the young high school junior as “They always get away”, and most certainly stalked him. Can anyone imagine a young mind which realized he was being stalked by someone and having no idea why he is stalking him. A man who did not even say, ” Hey I am with that neighborhood watch. Are you headed to an apartment?” No, the 27 year old felt buoyed via his gun, his assumed vigilantism, and a low regard for the high school kid. He profiled him, tried him and literally executed the kid. So, these folks that want to place a halo over the head of George Zimmerman are actually practicing the essence of the lesson from Accidental. You see Trayvon Martin was a person who via his birth fell into what I call the “Invisible Negro”. He had a place in society, but that place sat well below the privileged life experienced by others who have different birthrights. Privilege that is “conferred” simply by being born into an ethnic group that assumes it has a high place in the social ladder. Oh, and please do not tell me ZImmerman is part Latino. Yes, Zimmerman is a horrible person because he took a life and robbed the Earth of a young man who did nothing more wrong than think he could walk to a store for snacks and return to finish the last half of the NBA All-Star Game He had no idea he would literally meet, “The Devil.”
Please notice the long gap between the April 2012 last comment and the comment left post the Zimmerman Murderer Trial Verdict. People are re-visiting deep places in their psyches. It is sad more cannot see the tragedy of a life lost for no real reason beyond profiling, bias and racism.
Abby – I missed this one because for some reason, your posts are no longer arriving in my email inbox. I’ll try to sign up one more time. This is powerful and so true. We all carry pieces of racism/judgmentalism/unwarranted fear around with us. And if we can learn to talk about it – as you have done so beautifully here – then there may be hope for the future of the race we share — the human one. Thank you.