“Everywhere I’ve turned somebody has wanted to sacrifice me for my own good—only they were the ones who benefited. And now we start on the old sacrificial merry-go-round. At what point do we stop?”
― Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
I. 1974, Oklahoma
My parents have just adopted a baby boy, Timothy, my big brother (or so he will be in a couple years when I’m born). He’s three months old and has lived all his short life in an orphanage for hard to place children. Why, you might be wondering, would a healthy three-month-old baby be considered hard to place? It all boils down to the color of his skin, and the color of his father’s skin. See, Tim is half black (or really more like a fourth black, but you know about the one-drop rule, right?). His teenaged mother is white. Her lover is black. This is the only reason she gives him up. If he’d been white, her parents would accept him into their family. (We’ll learn this over thirty years from now when Tim will meet his biological parents and hear his origin story firsthand.) But he is a gorgeous boy with tawny curls, fat cheeks, and an infectious giggle, so my parents take him home, and he becomes part of our family instead.
II. 1987, Louisiana
I’m in sixth grade in Swartz, Louisiana, a little offshoot of Monroe. My brother Tim, who has always been by my side, has been shipped off to live with our father in Texas to avoid the racism of the deep south. (Boy were my parents naive!) It’s my second year in this new school, and I’ve formed a serious crush on a fellow sixth grader named Damario. I tell my best friend, April, because that’s what sixth grade girls do.
At recess, we gather under a tree on the playground, Damario facing me with a coy smile, his skin too dark to tell if he’s blushing, but I certainly am. April and a group of other sixth graders amass. I smile back at my crush. Maybe one of us says hello. I don’t remember because the overwhelming memory from that moment is the rise of voices and bodies all around us. The whole yard full of children has bound us in the middle of their chanting, stomping bodies. They’re repeating slurs they’ve heard floating around them since birth and some that they make up on the spot in a fit of creative rage: you’re gonna have zebra babies, ya nigger lover, oreo cookie, jungle fever… The bell rings and we move, one body, toward the door, slurs still flying, feet kicking dirt at our shins, until I reach a bench at the edge of the playground and climb onto it. I yell something about pigment, something about race being an illusion, something about how we’re all really the same. My sixth grade brain is trying to overcome the hurt of knowing I’ll never get to hold hands with my crush because I’m too terrified. I’m trying to repair wounds that none of us understands, dealt in a fight that we inherited from a place we’ve never been. I’m trying to fight fear with love, even though this love never has a chance. Damario is swept off in the violent tide, and for all the years we’re in school together, we never speak another word to each other.
The day struggles on. From one class to the next, I’m shoved or pinched or whispered at. On my way to music class, one of my male classmates runs like a charging bull and stops inches from my face. I am disgusting, he says, which is something akin to shame and embarrassment and fear and fascination all wrapped into one rank monster. That’s me, twelve years old in a foreign land.
After school I wait out front for my mother to arrive and save me from this place. Two minutes pass, then five. Suddenly a teacher is beside me. I remember her from the second grade hall. She teaches the little ones. “I know you’re new here,” she says, “and I heard about what happened today.” She’s going to apologize for those hateful kids, I think. “But you should know that little white girls like you don’t go runnin’ ‘round with little black boys like him ‘round here.” And that’s when I know I’m all alone in this place.
III. 1989, Junior High in Louisiana
The playground incident follows me all the way through junior high and high school. It’s as if I’ve charged admission for the whole sixth grade class to look at my vagina or something. Seriously. Occasionally, someone asks about it: “Hey, aren’t you that girl? What were you thinking?” I never know what to say. I mostly just say yes and change the subject.
It’s the day of the social studies fair. I’m standing there in front of my project about ancient native peoples of Louisiana minding my own business when a black girl a few projects down walks up and asks, “Hey, you got some black in you, don’t you?” How do I answer that question? If I say no, do I sound like being black is a bad thing? If I say yes, well that’s probably a lie. I could just say I don’t know, which is the truth. Finally, I say, “No, why?” Her eyes scan my face and body. “Oh just your lips and nose and butt kinda look it, I guess.” Then she walks back to her project where she stays the rest of the day. This is the first time I recall feeling self-conscious about my race, as if, without having the language for it, I’ve somehow identified my culpability in all the struggles I’ve witnessed all the years of my young life.
In science class, I sit next to Henry, a black boy whose face hints at what he’ll look like when he’s fifty. Henry is an old soul. We always end up talking about one thing or another, and one day, out of nowhere, he says, “If I could change one thing about myself, I’d be white.” I stop breathing for a second when I hear this. It breaks my heart a little because I know I can’t talk him out of it. I know he’s telling the deep down truth.
IV. The ’90s, Louisiana and Texas
It’s my sophomore year and I’m headed to history class in a herd of other tenth graders when I find myself behind two boys, one white and one black, who seem to be playing a game of one-upping each other. The black kid throws out his best verbal punch and smiles, and right as we make it to the classroom door, the white kid stops, turns, puts on a slow grin and says, “Oh yeah, well my granddaddy owned your granddaddy.” And that’s that. He’s won.
Tim comes for a visit from Texas and spends a day at my high school. My mom, who teaches English there, shows him around and then asks a colleague if she’ll introduce my brother to some kids his age while she teaches a class. The woman says sure. But she only introduces him to black kids who are all quarantined to the same area of the cafeteria.
It’s the mid ’90s in Texas, and Tim falls in love with a girl from his college, a girl he’s known all through high school, whose father is Tim’s football coach. When Tim knows she’s the one, he asks her to marry him, and she says yes. But her parents say no. He doesn’t get it. They like him. They have Tim over for dinner; they’ve let him date their daughter for years. They’ve all been line dancing together, for Christ’s sake.
It turns out they aren’t opposed to Tim, per se; they’re afraid of what their grandchildren will look like if Tim is their father. They aren’t ashamed to admit this, thinking that they’re only looking out for the best interests of these hypothetical children who would be growing up in a racist society. Tim calls our mom and begs her to write the girl’s parents a letter saying that he is really Spanish or something, anything other than black. She won’t do it. She won’t lie so these racist people can feel better about shunning her son to protect the prospects of their grandchildren’s skin tone.
We’re pretty certain it is this event that convinces Tim to hide his true identity. He shaves all his curls off and tells the next girl he dates that my parents are his mom and dad by blood, that he is what we are: Native American, Irish, German, English, Dutch. A bunch of mixed up stuff that equals white. On the census he becomes white. On applications he’s white. On the soccer field, the football field, in the classroom, on job interviews, he’s white. And since he’s become white, he is free from the worry that has followed him around his whole life. Since he is lucky enough to be able to “pass” as white, Tim can escape, hide, redefine himself.
But by this time the damage is done. First, he is the invisible man because no one wants to see his true self as equal. And then, he is the invisible man because he is equal, but no one knows who he really is. This is the sacrifice he has to make to live a pseudo-free life in America.
V. Today in the United States
Race is arguably the most complicated and controversial topic in America. Some don’t think it exists, or if it does, they say it doesn’t matter. Some say it’s everything. The PBS series, The Whiteness Project, interviews white people about race, and they’re frank. And frankly, some of them make me a little uncomfortable to be white.
Maybe I’ve always been uncomfortable being white. This may sound disingenuous, but as a child, I related more to people of color than I did to white folks. Maybe because I’m the only white kid in my family or because my best friend was black or because my brother is. Maybe because I found more pride in being another race and more shame in being white because the white kids always seemed to be the mean kids. (I was into postcolonialism before it was cool…or before I knew it was called postcolonialism.) I’m not sure, really, but I’ve always been hyper aware of race and racism. And I didn’t understand until I was quite a bit older exactly how much privilege I have and what a scar systemic racism can leave on a life.
I’m overwhelmed by the impossibility of convincing the southern boys I grew up with in Louisiana that they should give up the notion that “America’s the greatest nation on Earth” or convincing them that it only will be once we admit to our mistakes. I’m overwhelmed by the power of willful ignorance. Those who violently argue that racism isn’t an issue anymore, that black people just need to try harder to get ahead, they’re missing the core of the problem. They’re part of the problem, part of the broken system that broke my brother’s heart, stole his identity, and often put me at odds with the better angels of my nature.
Some things, once broken, can never be mended, but that’s not true of human cultures. All it takes is a generation or two where children are taught empathy, where neighbors get to know each other, where hatred is an unacceptable weapon against fear. All it takes is an unveiling of the truth.
It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? But it turns out it’s the most difficult thing in the world to give an entire race of people their humanity back. No one seems to know the solution. Some say we should just be nicer to each other and stop dwelling so much on the past. Others argue that reparations may be the only hope of leveling the playing field. In his article in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” (which I highly recommend everyone read as soon as they finish this) Ta-Nehisi Coates illustrates the resistance to change alive in American politics today:
For the past 25 years, Congressman John Conyers Jr., who represents the Detroit area, has marked every session of Congress by introducing a bill calling for a congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects as well as recommendations for ‘appropriate remedies.’ … That HR 40 [the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act] has never—under either Democrats or Republicans—made it to the House floor suggests our concerns are rooted not in the impracticality of reparations but in something more existential.
To repair ourselves from our American heritage, we must unshelter the lie that’s brought us to this place, the lie that America is the land of the free, the myth that a good work ethic is all it takes to get ahead, that America is a meritocracy. Admitting that the foundation of this country was literally built using the stolen bodies of African slaves, and that the ramifications of slavery still echo through our race struggles today, is a start. Admitting we have a problem is the first step to solving it. And considering reparations for the centuries of oppression we’ve allowed and often encouraged will be therapeutic for whites and a necessary step toward economic and social progress for blacks.
I don’t know what reparations would look like for this country, if they would be in the form of opportunities and programs for African-Americans, monetary payment, or something else altogether. But when I read in Coates’s article about how tens of millions of dollars worth of land—historically the most important item to own in order to achieve wealth for oneself or future generations—has been stolen from African-American families, when I read about how realtors for decades have been encouraged not to sell to African-Americans or to do so using outrageous loan terms, when I read about how much more difficult it is for people of color to rise and stay out of poverty than it is for whites, I’m compelled to believe we owe the oppressed a great debt for all the injustices they’ve endured. I’m with Congressman Conyers in my desire to examine the possibilities of what we can become if we just imagine something else for ourselves.
We’ll all win as soon as we’re willing to wake up to the reality of the culture we’ve been born into and understand the complicated feelings we have about our struggle for free will in a world that is systematically set up to privilege some people over others. We’ll all win as soon as we understand that each of us as individuals can be the nicest, least racist people you’d ever care to meet, and that counts for something, but it’s not everything. It doesn’t excuse the racial disparities in our criminal justice system or our education system. And it doesn’t make up for the several hundred years before our birth that set in motion the inequality we live with today. The first step is waking up and being willing to look at ourselves straight in the mirror to see who we really are. The second step probably has something to do with humility and grace.