I know a white woman with a black daughter.
I babysat the daughter when she was just a baby. There was a terrible incident with a sweet potato and a microwave and smoke. The baby cried when I put her on the porch so that she would be out of harm’s way while I dealt with smoke detectors and disposed of the blackened mass in the microwave. (Talk about a moment of sheer panic!) The baby cried. I soothed her tears, read her stories, and distracted her. She smiled. By the end of that warm summer evening, with all the windows open to air out the rancid smell of burnt potato, that beautiful baby was laughing. Oh my god, her laugh. I’ll never forget it. It’s loud and clear, the epitome of pure joy. It bounces off the walls and fills your soul with the kind of happiness that you couldn’t ever buy. She lights up when she laughs. She’s clever and quick; she loves to dance around, loves to read, loves to play. I’ll never forget the sight of her in her footed pajamas jumping around, playing hide and seek with me. She giggled when I popped up, then I hid again, and reappeared. Her face cracked. The laugh spilled out into the coming night. My heart overflowed.
The woman adopted the baby and brought her home and loved (loves) her, just like my parents did with me.
But that baby is black.
It’s the first thing that many people comment on. I know, because I’ve read her mother’s posts. I’ve heard the annoyance, felt the pain. The comments don’t just come from white people, either. That mother is attempting to do the best she can for that beautiful child. To her, diversity is important. They have all sorts of friends who come in all sorts of colors. They do colorful things, eat colorful foods, live a colorful life. And no, I’m not just talking about racial diversity. I’m talking about life. They lead a beautiful, charming life.
So who cares?
Well, this mother cares. Knowing that her daughter is exposed to everything is important to her. She wants to educate her and show her the world. All of it.
And apparently, a lot of people care enough to comment. Even if they don’t think they’re doing it. They say critical things. They ask rude questions.
The baby will grow up. The baby will become a young woman. She will go to college. She will become an adult. She may even have children of her own someday. She’ll have the support that she needs; she’ll have all the love in the world behind her. She’ll face challenges, of course, as all babies who grow up do, but she’ll also have to learn a lot about race and our country. She’ll some day face adversity. She might even face hatred.
That sounds terrible, doesn’t it?
And while we all sit there and talk about how we have such diverse friend groups, and how it’s such a shame that racism exists, we’re not doing enough. We can do better. That doesn’t just go for white people either. Everybody needs to be better. Everybody CAN be better. It just takes a step or three in the right direction and pretty soon you’re on a better path.
No one should ever have to face the prospect of explaining racial inequality to their child.
We’re not afraid of black babies. (You all know that I’m such a huge fan of babies anyway, but oh my god, they’re ALL so cute!) No one is afraid of toddlers, or children. Those babies grow into gangly adolescents, with long arms and silly haircuts. Those babies listen to music that you’d most likely consider noise. They struggle to find their place in the world. They dream and laugh and love. They learn, they grow, they get jobs. They go to concerts. They go out to eat. They watch tv. They are exactly like all the rest of the young adults in the world.
But once those children start to grow up, start to become adults, people start to get a little nervous. They edge away on the bus; they hold their bags a little tighter; they look at their feet instead of making eye contact.
Do you do that, even unconsciously? If you do, you might want to reexamine your approach. Because when someone does that, they’re doing the worst thing that can ever happen to a child, an adolescent, or a young adult. When they do that, they’re invalidating everything that that child/adolescent/young adult/adult knows. They’re sending them the message that they’re afraid. Of them. They’re sending the message that they assume the worst. From them. They’re sending a message. That message says, “You’re not equal. You’re not okay. You’ll never be good enough.”
You don’t want to send those messages, do you? Of course not. You’re a good person. But good is relative. Be a better person. I hate to quote the Marines here, but “be all that you can be.” (That is the Marines, right?)
I promised myself I wouldn’t dive into a sociological rant, and I’m doing my best not to. Black doesn’t just have negative social implications. There are negative employment, economic, educational implications. We must stop this. We must fight to change the way we view color in our society, in our world. We must act. That doesn’t mean you have to join a diversity club or march around Civic Center Park on a Sunday with a giant sign. All you have to do is start implementing small changes in your own life. Trust me, they’ll ripple out around you like you’d tossed a stone into water. Everyone’s ripples can create giant waves of change. (So what if that’s a lame metaphor?)
The next time you get nervous on a bus, or in line at the grocery store, or wherever, think about this: the person you’re not looking at was once a baby. That person has a mother and a father. That person has family, maybe brothers and sisters. That person has hopes, and dreams, and inside jokes with people. That person has a beautiful smile. By humanizing the person you’re edging away from, you might be able to open channels of communication, create the possibility of love in your heart. Start thinking of them as a dynamic human being. Smile. Ask them how their day is going. You might be pleasantly surprised by their response.
When I was sixteen, I started working at a local Dairy Queen. As we were about to close for the night, our cleaning guy Melvin would come in. Melvin was a middle-aged man with a raspy voice and rough hands. He had a wife and a ten-year old daughter who was at the top of her fourth-grade class (I know because I double-checked – and sometimes helped out with – her homework). Melvin and I would sit on the concrete sidewalk outside the store for a while after we closed. He’d always pull this beat-up orange cushion out of his van and sit on it, while lecturing me about my own sitting habits. He told me that if I continued sitting on the ground with no cushion, I’d get hemorrhoids. (For the record, he was wrong.) He taught me a lot about love. When I was seventeen, and in love with a boy who was never going to love me back, he watched my heart break and told me that I deserved better. I loved Melvin. I was always happy to see his headlights pull into the parking lot. I felt safer when he was there. (I was robbed at gunpoint when I was seventeen. The robber was white.) He had a beautiful laugh; he told wonderful (if entirely inappropriate) jokes; he was the best cleaner we ever had. After he left, we couldn’t replace him. No one was the same. Melvin died a while ago, of lung cancer. He was a black man. But more than that, he was a wonderful man.
Let me tell you this – your life will be a sad and lonely place if you don’t let people in. It’s not about what they look like or what they do, it’s about who they are. Everyone has something to give you, something to share with you, something to teach you.
Everybody was a baby once. Everybody has loved, lost, and learned. Everyone has stories to share and jokes to tell. Everyone is dynamic in their own way.
Speaking of babies, here’s the story that inspired this: A black baby who grew up to be a young man, is now dead because someone is an idiot. 17-year old Trayvon Martin lived in a gated community in Florida with his dad and brother. During the NBA All-Star game in February, he went to buy some skittles and an iced tea. On his way home, the neighborhood watch guy – one George Zimmerman – followed him, questioned him, and ultimately, shot and killed him. Trayvon had nothing wrong. Following his murder, Zimmerman wasn’t arrested. He’s been receiving death threats. He says that he killed Trayvon because he looked “suspicious.” Yep. That terrible word.
I’ve been loosely following this story, but I think that this post says so much: (The post was written by a white blogger.)
White People, You Will Never Look Suspicious Like Trayvon MartinPosted March 19, 2012 by Michael Skolnik
I will never look suspicious to you. Even if I have a black hoodie, a pair of jeans and white sneakers on…in fact, that is what I wore yesterday…I still will never look suspicious. No matter how much the hoodie covers my face or how baggie my jeans are, I will never look out of place to you. I will never watch a taxi cab pass me by to pick someone else up. I will never witness someone clutch their purse tightly against their body as they walk by me. I won’t have to worry about a police car following me for two miles, so they can “run my plates.” I will never have to pay before I eat. And I certainly will never get “stopped and frisked.” I will never look suspicious to you, because of one thing and one thing only. The color of my skin. I am white.
I was born white. It was the card I was dealt. No choice in the matter. Just the card handed out by the dealer. I have lived my whole life privileged. Privileged to be born without a glass ceiling. Privileged to grow up in the richest country in the world. Privileged to never look suspicious. I have no guilt for the color of my skin or the privilege that I have. Remember, it was just the next card that came out of the deck. But, I have choices. I got choices on how I play the hand I was dealt. I got a lot of options. The ball is in my court.
So, today I decided to hit the ball. Making a choice. A choice to stand up for Trayvon Martin. 17 years old. black. innocent. murdered with a bag of skittles and a bottle of ice tea in his hands. “Suspicious.” that is what the guy who killed him said he looked like cause he had on a black hoodie, a pair of jeans and white sneakers. But, remember I had on that same outfit yesterday. And yes my Air Force Ones were “brand-new” clean. After all, I was raised in hip-hop…part of our dress code. I digress. Back to Trayvon and the gated community in Sanford, Florida, where he was visiting his father.
I got a lot of emails about Trayvon. I have read a lot of articles. I have seen a lot of television segments. The message is consistent. Most of the commentators, writers, op-ed pages agree. Something went wrong. Trayvon was murdered. Racially profiled. Race. America’s elephant that never seems to leave the room. But, the part that doesn’t sit well with me is that all of the messengers of this message are all black too. I mean, it was only two weeks ago when almost every white person I knew was tweeting about stopping a brutal African warlord from killing more innocent children. And they even took thirty minutes out of their busy schedules to watch a movie about dude. They bought t-shirts. Some bracelets. Even tweeted at Rihanna to take a stance. But, a 17 year old American kid is followed and then ultimately killed by a neighborhood vigilante who happens to be carrying a semi-automatic weapon and my white friends are quiet. Eerily quiet. Not even a trending topic for the young man.
We’ve heard the 911 calls. We seen the 13 year old witness. We’ve read the letter from the alleged killer’s father. We listened to the anger of the family’s attorney. We’ve felt the pain of Trayvon’s mother. For heaven’s sake, for 24 hours he was a deceased John Doe at the hospital because even the police couldn’t believe that maybe he LIVES in the community. There are still some facts to figure out. There are still some questions to be answered. But, let’s be clear. Let’s be very, very clear. Before the neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, started following him against the better judgement of the 911 dispatcher. Before any altercation. Before any self-defense claim. Before Travyon’s cries for help were heard on the 911 tapes. Before the bullet hit him dead in the chest. Before all of this. He was suspicious. He was suspicious. suspicious. And you know, like I know, it wasn’t because of the hoodie or the jeans or the sneakers. Cause I had on that same outfit yesterday and no one called 911 saying I was just wandering around their neighborhood. It was because of one thing and one thing only. Trayvon is black.
So I’ve made the choice today to tell my white friends that the rights I take for granted are only valid if I fight to give those same rights to others. The taxi cab. The purse. The meal. The police car. The police. These are all things I’ve taken for granted.
So, I fight for Trayvon Martin. I fight for Amadou Diallo. I fight for Rodney King. I fight for every young black man who looks “suspicious” to someone who thinks they have the right to take away their freedom to walk through their own neighborhood. I fight against my own stereotypes and my own suspicions. I fight for people whose ancestors built this country, literally, and who are still treated like second class citizens. Being quiet is not an option, for we have been too quiet for too long.
Michael Skolnik is the Editor-In-Chief of GlobalGrind.com and the political director to Russell Simmons. Prior to this, Michael was an award-winning filmmaker. Follow him on twitter @MichaelSkolnik