NJ Oriley is a new writer on the block ready to take on the hard topics. NJ brings a unique perspective and a fresh point of view.
A black man asked a white woman this question. “If you were approached by a large black man and a large white man alone in a parking garage, which one would you be more afraid of?” There are only 2 possible answers. How would you have answered him?
It's not my fault
I suppose the answer to this question for most people would depend a great deal on several factors. Their background or upbringing for example. Their experiences with both white and black men would certainly play into it. Every answer would be different because it would be shaped by that person's personal experiences. When I raised this question to several people, the conversation almost always started the same, with an explanation. In the world we currently live in, there is not an answer that will not offend or hurt someone. How then, do we as a people have these hard conversations without creating an even bigger divide. If this woman's answer was the white man, most people would think she was lying, but why? Because most people know the answer would be the black man. If she answers honestly and says the black man, is she racist? Could she work for this man after giving such an answer? Date him? Share a cab with him? Probably not. It is a conversation we as a country are not ready to have. Conversations we as individuals have not learned to navigate productively. A lot of what I have heard in regards to these “tough conversations” goes something like this.
“We all need to be respectful and have open minds.”
“I never had slaves, I hire black people, why am I being treated like a racist because of 1 or 2 bad seeds?”
“If black people want to be treated equally they need to behave like equals.”
Since when does someone in America need to earn equality? Being respectful and open-minded is great but how does that heal what has been done?
Old feelings are still real feelings
Now let me skip to another matter for a moment before we come back to this conversation. Let’s pretend for a moment that you and your high school sweetheart beat the odds, got married, and had 4 beautiful kids. Your 30-year high school reunion is approaching and your significant other receives a phone call from their first boyfriend or girlfriend from high school saying they would like to have a drink with you both at the reunion and remember the old times. How does that make you feel? For most of us, it would set off at least a twinge of discomfort. It might be just a general feeling of unease or an eye roll at an evening of awkward pleasantries. It might stir up feelings of nervousness or self-doubt. It might even cause some tension between you and your significant other, even though you are both on the same side. It is a difficult situation. Years have passed, things have changed, births, deaths, rises, and falls of nations have happened. So why does this small thing bring up such nasty feelings still? It’s because you are human, and you have deep human emotions. We are complicated and we remember….Oh, how we remember. The good the bad and especially the ugly. If something this small can jar such big feelings and reactions from us, imagine what kinds of feelings years and years of oppression, violence, and slavery could drum up even after decades of “change”.
I think residual anger and pain is not only normal and to be expected but valid. To acknowledge this deeply rooted injustice that occurred at the hands of white Americans is only the beginning of making things right. We must be accountable for our history. No matter how ugly or embarrassing it is, we have to own that. No, You and I did not have slaves, nor would we condone it, but what about our great-great-great-great grandparents. Now, let us jump back to this hard conversation these two people were having and include some of these ideas. This white woman may have never had a racist thought in her mind. She might be fair and just and argue for black lives matter. This man might work in high ranking CEO position with a white wife and no issues with white America. However, this women's great-great-great-great-grandfather might have raped and murdered this man's great-great-great-great grandmother. Her great-great-great-great grandmother might have killed multiple children that were born to the slaves she owned to hide the fact that her husband was raping their mother. Read that again slowly. Murdered children of the mothers she owned. Owned. Like a car, or cattle. Like dumb, lifeless property. But these were people! People that were stripped of all dignity, all rights, and all justices. Mothers and fathers watched as their children were slaughtered at night by the same people they would be forced to serve and care for by day. When some of them tried to escape this treachery, slave patrols were created. Slave patrols were a group of white people given the power to use whatever means necessary to hunt down, punish, and return slaves to their owners. These slave patrols turned into police patrols over time. Do you think if this man knew his great-great-great-great grandmother's story of abuse, and torture that even years later he might have a hint of unease towards the group of people who did that to her? Do you think it might even cause stronger feelings such as anger, or aggression to think that no one during her life had the power to help her or save her? That no one around her saw her as more than a piece of property or a taboo sexual encounter? This man witnessed no such thing with his own eyes, but his history is rich with stories like this. Can you understand the distrust he might have towards a group of cops that although reformed and changed now, were created to hunt and kill these slaves that were his blood? So again, back to the original question. It is reasonable for this woman to respond with “I would be more afraid of the big black guy because just look at all the reasons he has to hate me.” But you won't hear many white people say that because to say that is to accept responsibility and none of us wants to take on the burden of responsibility for something so heinous. Of course, the white people you will talk to today have never participated in such things as slavery. I am going to jump one more time and than land on my final point. Have you ever been out in public with one of your kids or an elderly parent and they start licking the cart or talking to the lady behind you about their underpants or something equally as embarrassing? Usually, we give that a look to the people around to say, I can’t control this, apologize, and try to move the conversation in a different direction right? I think we need to start using some of these same tactics in race talks. I say WE because I am white. This is my problem as much as it is anyone else's. I owe it to the black men and women of today to stand up and say I am sorry from the bottom of my heart that this happened. I am so embarrassed, and I want to make it right. It is only after an acknowledgment of the hurt and with a genuinely apologetic heart that we can start turning the conversation in a different and hopefully more productive direction. For, to have these "hard conversations" it must be understood that anything that is said is coming from a place of respect and love. We will all disagree, and there will be ignorant comments made, probably feelings hurt. But When it is known that the words are coming from a place of understanding and concern it is easier to overlook some of those things. Talk is good. Change is fantastic. But I truly believe that on a very individual level white America needs to start taking responsibility for our past to some degree. What happened was wrong. It was unfair, and to imply that because black people don’t get beat for existing anymore and can vote so it’s all ok, is downright insulting. We can never take back what happened. We can’t fix it for those long lost generations of beautiful souls that never got to feel the real freedom America has to offer. So how can we fix the unfixable? I think an apology is due. To all the families who were affected by slavery, oppression, or racism, I apologize. I am sorry for the ignorant jokes, the self-absorbed unawareness I have had, and for standing back and doing nothing when I have seen and heard things going on that shouldn't have been. And I will keep apologizing. I think some things happen in our society today that may in fact not be racist, but to a community of people who have felt the effects of racism their entire life might, the same situations might have a feel more of a sensitivity that comes from living with such a long dark history. Maybe that white cop shot that black robber because he thought he was armed and his race had nothing to do with it, but is it reasonable that the black community is skeptical after countless race-related killings? Yes, I think so. For those of us who have never had to fear the police because of our race, never had to defend our validity or our value to the world, it is difficult to grasp so I will try to think of a more relatable situation.
Mercy and grace
Your dad abused your mom for years. You grew up watching him beat and belittle this woman that you loved so much. Eventually, he leaves, and you and your mom have years to heal and grow into something new. You move out, she gets remarried to a wonderful man but he, like all of us, has his flaws. One day you come over for dinner and they are arguing. He slams his hand on the table and stands abruptly facing your mom. How do you feel? Protective? angry? scared? Maybe you are even aggressive. He has never hurt your mom. He had nothing to do with your dad, but you haul off and punch him. You are not going to stand here and watch this happen to her again. But you were wrong. He wasn’t going to hurt either of you. He was going to clear her plate, start the dishes, and cool down. He knows your past and he loves you and your mom, so he shows you mercy and grace. He understands that this is a special situation, that there will be ups and downs and times where you will need grace because of your history.
Apologize, educate, remember, and love
This is what I believe the black community needs from us. Not just equality and fairness. Something so much deeper and more personal. An understanding that they are still healing from the massive wound that was inflicted on their culture. They are fragile and sensitive and that that doesn't make them weak or less than anyone else. It makes them wonderfully vulnerable and puts them in the perfect place to show a phoenix rising, beauty from ashes. I researched a lot of statistics and studies on what beliefs on black lives are and are not true. Are black men more violent? Do they get judged more harshly? Do they have fewer job opportunities? I was going to include a lot of these to prove my point but then I realized, it doesn't matter. What needs to happen, needs to happen regardless of these statistics and studies. I found hundreds upon hundreds of these types of articles that point out that African Americans are still at an overwhelming disadvantage, but even if they weren't arent they still in need of love and healing? These facts are just salt in the wound. In these articles, there are solutions like promoting more black people or putting more black people in positions of political power but the black people I know would like to get promoted because of their qualifications and work ethic, not because they are black and America is trying to improve their "black look". Equality is something we will all have to work at for the foreseeable future because true equality isn’t giving or not giving someone something because of their race. True equality is giving or not giving something to someone without looking at skin color, economic level, or gender. I think if we could have a big nationwide convention and each white person could be assigned to a black person and we could sit alone and apologize, one on one for the hurt our people have caused their people and get to know each other, really get to know each other, true healing could begin. the resentment and fear would ebb. We would understand each other in such a different way. Our appreciation of each other's differences would grow miles in those few minutes. alas, this nationwide meeting was turned down when I tried to book it at the Hilton, and so we must start this process on an individual basis. I think it’s personal. I think it is white America thinking "how can I apologize and make the lives of every black person I come into contact with better? How can I eliminate the need for groups like black lives matter, so nobody of any race ever feels like they have to defend their very existence to the world? Back again to the original question between the man and women. Here is the reality of it. That woman was me, and that man was my husband. I had to look the love of my life in the eye and tell him I would be more afraid of the black man than the white man and I couldn’t say why. I had to tell the bravest, most dignified person in my world that even though he and his black family had given me more love and acceptance than any other people I have ever met, I would still have had my doubts about these 2 men in the parking garage. And then I apologized. I apologized that I felt that way. I apologized for the ignorant comments my wonderful but sometimes unthoughtful family had made. I apologized for all the uncomfortable situations he has had to deal with to be with me, and he was the picture of forgiveness and grace. Through the process of growing together with this man, an awareness has come over me. I started having these “hard conversations” with myself because how am I ever going to go out into the world and have honest, respectful, and intelligent conversations with others when I can hardly face myself? So again, how do we fix the unfixable? The saying goes “once you know better, do better” and I believe that to the tip of my toes, but it’s not enough to say it, we have to actually do it. RIGHT NOW. It might take years, but we have to keep trying. We have to do better with every encounter and conversation. Each one is a chance to change the dialogue for someone else. Next time you hear someone talking about someone or something in the black community (or any community for that matter!) in a way that is not ok, it’s not enough to not be a part of it anymore. We are too educated and aware to just look the other way. Take some responsibility on your own shoulders for the choices of our ancestors. These survivors deserve your respect, your compassion, and your willingness to stand for what is right. Not because they are black but because they are human. They are one of us. The fact that they can forgive and move forward after everything that has been done to them might in fact make them even better humans than most of us. There will be things that we cannot fix or changes that can't be made as quickly as we would like. When this happens we must stand side by side and fight. When the person next to you cannot stand anymore, you must hold them up and be strong for them until they get what they deserve. Not because they earned it or because they have proved worthy, but because they are human and they are Americans already. They were born equal, and we must never again, I say WE MUST NEVER AGAIN forget that, for to forget allows the past an opportunity to sneak up on us again when we are not looking. Apologize. Educate. Remember, and most importantly...LOVE.