Not Understanding My Skin


In their newest article, The Well Written Woman discusses the issues brought forth by the events in Ferguson, MO. I will not be discussing that, not by a long shot. I am woefully uninformed and far from qualified to do so. However, their opening paragraphs struck me as something that I could easily say about my own self [applicable portions bolded]:

“I don’t even know where to start with the rat’s nest of social justice issues that need to be addressed in the midst of all that is happening in the aftermath of the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown and the ensuing (justifiable) outrage of the people of Ferguson, MO.

I don’t know that I’m even remotely qualified to discuss it.

I don’t know the struggle people of color face in their every day lives, with the police, with the systemic racism that permeates our culture.

I’m white.

I don’t know a damn thing about what it’s like to be black in America.

I can observe what it’s like. I can recognize injustice when I see it. I can empathize with the pain of another human being, but I have no frame of reference to be able to sympathize.

I am blessed with the privilege of being surrounded by diverse people. That diversity has opened my heart and shattered it and rebuilt it over and over again.”

Yes, I am black. No, I have no idea of the hardships and struggles that seem to be synonymous in this country with that state of being. I personally don’t know a damn thing about what it means to be black in America. Though I have been back and forth to the States all my life, I grew up on an island in the Caribbean, amongst a family and community of all shapes and colors, a country composed of multiple ethnicities. Were there cases of racism? Oh, yes! I would be an innocent fool to think otherwise. But I have been fortunate enough in my life, both there and here in the States, to never have personally encountered injustice based solely on the color of my skin, or, if I have, it wasn’t anything that mattered enough for me to notice. But can I say something? I notice that other people notice that I am unbothered, or at least not enraged.

When I was in college, I took an American Literature class and, of course, we came upon African-American literature and the Harlem Renaissance. I was one of two black students in the class, me being an English Education major and him a theatre/directing major. He was very enthusiastic and passionate about this period of literature and the authors and elected to do his class lecture assignment during this segment of the semester. After my fellow student gave his lecture, which was fabulous, the professor stepped up to me as I pulled my things together to leave class and he asked if I was enjoying the class. I assured him that I very much was, and he seemed surprised by that. I asked him why and he explained to me that, frequently, when he had African-American students, they usually seemed to really enjoy the Harlem Renaissance portion of the class but I seemed rather blase about it. I admitted that, while I found some portions of Harlem Renaissance literature interesting, there will always be a part of it that is lost to me. I have not the sense of injustice or righteous anger that seems to pervade a great portion of the literature; I fail to understand or be able to sympathize with it. Therefore, some of the emotion and levels inherent in the writing were inaccessible to me then and still are now.

So in this situation with MO, I find that I am woefully ill-equipped to understand and discuss this situation, which is why I haven’t even brought it up in conversation or watched most of the news coverage or read the stories on it. All I know is that there is a great deal of heartbreak, anger, violence, and, grieving, broken people involved and no amount of talking on my part, particularly from my position in life, is going to do any good. All I can do is pray for everyone involved and that is what I am doing.

It brings to stark relief how good of a life I have had and still have. When I tell my husband that my daughter and I have gone out shopping or something during the day, sometimes he will ask if we saw anyone we knew or if anyone say hi to us or anything. The reason, he tells me, is that he wants us to feel comfortable where we live and to never feel like we need to worry or be afraid or nervous. Want the truth? I have never worried about anywhere that I have lived in my life. I have never feared for myself (or my daughter) because of the color of my skin. Maybe that is blissful ignorance and obliviousness on my part, but, regardless, it is something that I am continually grateful for.

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