“I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.” ~ Maya Angelou.
I first felt the full force of racism in Jacksonville, Florida. It was 1978. I had driven there to take my Nursing Boards, what is now known as the NCLEX-RN. At that time there were three sites in Florida for the exam which was administered over 2 days, or was it 2 ½? Driving around the area, accompanied by my Jamaican boyfriend, I felt the glare of a white man when he pulled up beside us at the light. It caused me to check that my door was locked.
I learned about white privilege when I moved to Jamaica as a child. Of course, I didn’t know that was what it was, and most of it I understood in hindsight. I went to play with a girl who was my age. Her mother was so happy for me to come and play with her daughter. I remember her proudly showing me her photo album. She was a light-skinned Jamaican (high color they would say), but her sister and her sister’s kids, they could pass for white. At the age of 8 I had no idea what that meant. Fortunately, my parents sent me to a local country school, where most of the kids were more amazed than impressed at the sight of a white girl. In fact, White Girl became one of my names! The fact that when they pinched me my skin turned red was a novelty to them. And when I fell down on the stony playing ground and skinned my knees, what a shock! Red blood too!
It was only in the past 10 years that I discovered how white privilege had spread to the friends I made at that school. There was no way the teachers were going to use the strap on me if I did wrong (you can imagine how red that would have turned my skin!). So when my friends and I returned late from recess, a crime normally punishable with the strap, they benefited by association.
When my family moved from England to Jamaica in the 1960’s, the city I grew up in had already become home to many immigrants, men and women of the Commonwealth flocking to what they believed was their Motherland, a place of opportunity. There were no Jim Crow laws as there were on the other side of the Atlantic. The society gave the appearance of non-discrimination. But of course the reality was far more pervasive, though perhaps subtle. Great Britain had benefited from the Slave Trade, and from its colonial past. It was a Mother who had sold her own kids into slavery. But the evidence of that had been left on the other side of the world. The descendants of the plantation owners were still benefiting from the advantages of such wealth. Their great houses were timbered with gleaming mahogany; their ancestors had been spoilt by the sugar and wealth from the islands. Cotton grown from the blood sweat and tears of Africans torn from their real Motherland provided the fuel for the Industrial Revolution that created more wealthy landowners, and jobs for the working class.
Meanwhile, back on the island of Jamaica, for many years a white-washed version of history was taught. It took a while before men and women descended from the African slaves were named as the National Heroes, before the ruling class took on a darker hue. It took a while for the atrocities that contributed to the growth of that special population were acknowledged.
My education regarding racism continued in my life in the USA. I learnt that when (white) people who didn’t know me well discovered that my husband was Jamaican, their next question would be ‘but he isn’t black is he?’ I would usually respond that he was more orange than black, messing with their heads. But I learned to recognize the glazing over of their eyes as they tried to recall prior conversations with me. Had they said anything that could have been perceived as racist? And then there would be anger. At me. I should have given them some kind of indication, some warning, so they would have monitored their speech, their reactions. It was a good way to weed out those who would be my friends.
Michelle Obama once said ‘When they go low, we go high’. For many people of color, taking the moral high ground has not been a sign of character, it has been a survival mode. Whether it is knowing how to handle a potential confrontation by being non-threatening, or thinking twice before volunteering opinions, living while black in America requires a skill set most white people cannot imagine. And that is quite apart from the inherent advantages that have multiplied over the generations for those descended from the Europeans.
And so as we once more get evidence of the pervasive presence of racism which is being written as policy, it is good to be reminded that there are still many bridges to cross, many dreams unfulfilled. Perhaps we needed that wake up call, a challenge to ask ourselves what role we are playing in the continued struggle for equal rights and justice. In a week when we celebrated the birth of MLK Jr, we are being called upon to defend the rights of those who are voiceless, those who are still discriminated against. Whether it is by political activism, or outreach within our community, there is work to be done.
On this frigid weekend in Florida (in the 40’s again this morning!) I hope you take the opportunity to learn something about someone who comes from a different culture or lifestyle than you, and to demonstrate the love, compassion and empathy that are our weapons against hate and bigotry.
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!