I want to feel that hope again
Being fully myself with my friends, beyond the hurt
By Sandra Darkwah
When I was in sixth grade, another classmate told me that I wasn’t allowed to speak when he spoke because, he said, “If this was the 1800's, I could own you.” We were in the middle of history class, huddled in groups of six to discuss an upcoming project. The comment had been directed at me because I had told him that the idea he’d suggested wasn’t original enough. Anger won over my initial shock. I picked up the textbook we had been looking through, and hit him with it. Someone at our table started “ooohing” and soon the sound was being repeated around the classroom, causing our teacher to break off the conversation she’d been having in the hallway with another teacher. The two of us were sent to principal’s office, where my anger gave way to hurt and I started to cry. I was told to apologize for hitting him; he was given two weeks of detention.
Most people, upon hearing this story, feel sorry for me. They are quick to state how horrible what that boy said to me was, how it shows the remnants of a bitter racial past that they hope will die out as our society continues to move forward. You see, it is clear in this story that what was said to my 11-year-old self was hateful, bigoted and unacceptable. But what if I were to compare that experience with watching an hour of television on a major network without once seeing anyone with my complexion or ancestry? Or the experience of leaving a well-known pharmacy chain empty-handed because the makeup selection falls several hues short of shades to match my skin? What about a store clerk following you a little too closely and being extra friendly as you shop for clothes and not because you look like you’re going to buy a lot?
What my classmate said to me was hurtful, but it isn’t any more hurtful than the experience of feeling as if I live on the fringes of the mainstream and my friends do not know about it. Perhaps that is the problem, a lack of conversation. We’ve become uncomfortable talking about race in this country. Out of a desire to become color-blind and therefore more racially harmonious, we as a society actively participate in a form of censoring our differences. We worry that we might be misinterpreted, labeled one thing or another. Yet, the lack of dialogue prevents the sort of racial equality we believe we have already achieved.
At a dinner party that I recently hosted, a friend bought up the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Missouri, which led to a great conversation. It was the first conversation about race that I had ever had with this particular group, mixed but mostly white, and this realization was made more stunning by the fact that I have known and trusted many of those present for years. It was good to finally discuss something with them that I had been talking about with my black friends since the time of the Trayvon Martin case almost three years ago. It was a moment of self-awareness.
I have never discussed with my non-black friends what if feels like to often be the only African American in the room, the pressure of having to be the “voice” or representation of an entire race. I have not shared with them the resentment of having African American history, my history, be classified as an elective in college and not required coursework. I have not mentioned the quick peek I take at a camera whenever we take group pictures in a dimly light room, just to make sure that the flash is on. I can’t fully explain why I have hidden these parts of myself from my friends because it is complicated, as issues of race always are.
I remember the optimism that I felt when President Obama was sworn in for his first term. I was on the phone with my father, listening to him cry on the other end as the president placed his hand on the Bible. I want to feel that kind of hope again, albeit on a smaller scale. I want to live in a society in which we can all acknowledge what makes us different, clearly and simply out of love and understanding.
After my dinner party, I feel freer to initiate this kind of conversation. I don’t need to say, “Let’s talk about racism.” But if I go beyond my fear of being misunderstood and just share more of my daily life with the people around me, no matter their color, it will open the door for all of us to grow in empathy, to listen to one another more and share more in one another’s human experience.