“The first task of whites in these struggles is to be vocal and visible.” -Anne Braden
Growing up as a white woman in the south, the passive racism that I witnessed and participated in was and continues to be wrong. I want to change that practice and one step for me is writing a blog about how I handled a situation poorly and what I will do in the future to hold myself and other white people accountable.
Throughout college I would routinely return to Charlotte from Asheville, where I grew up, to visit my parents. Usually, I would be roped into a reunion of friends from high school around a bonfire or in someone’s parent’s basement. We would share stories about parties, college life, and romantic interests. I always loathed these forced congregations, because it reminded me of the discontent and unhappiness I felt in high school. I would hear myself hold back from talking about my openly queer life in college, or refrain from talking about the “controversial,” degree (Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies) I was seeking. As if I reverted back into my closeted self.
On one of these occasions a friend of mine invited someone new to join us. We were all sitting around a bonfire in a friend’s backyard, when this new guest arrived. For a moment all we were able to see as he approached was an outline of a person. As he greeted the group and took a seat I couldn’t place where I had seen him before. Charlotte is a big city but has always felt like a small town when it comes to running into people from your past. As we sat there he talked with our mutual friend and worked to make himself as comfortable as possible in a group of new-ish people. After about fifteen minutes he turns to me and says, “Too good to acknowledge me?”
I look at him confused. “What? “ I say.
“You don’t remember me?” He asks.
“Remember you from where?” I reply. He goes on to reintroduce himself and immediately all of my memories from elementary school came rushing back to me. This person looks so different than he had in fifth grade, but so did I. We begin to catch up and he asks me if I’ve stayed in touch with anyone from Lansdowne, our alma mater. I tell him no but he has. He starts to tell me all the accomplishments of classmates we both had.
“Do you remember Josh?” He asked excitedly.
“Yeah…I think so. How has he been lately?” I responded.
“He’s started playing football at [insert large university] but he only sits on the bench because all the black guys are faster. You know that’s all they are good for.”
I stared open-mouthed at the blatantly racist and serious young man that sat with me. He went on to spout off more insults and profanity. He talked at me about how all the [insert racial slur against Latinx people [i]] are taking his jobs. Sitting there, I continued to withdraw further into myself focusing completely on how offended and angry I felt. I thought of hundreds of insults to yell at him and I seriously contemplated throwing my chair in the fire. While my feelings are powerful, I could’ve used them as fuel to be brave and begin a conversation with him about racism. Eventually, he left and the night continued as usual.
Looking back on this incident I realized that I never thought about engaging him in a thoughtful conversation. I never thought about pulling out my phone and looking for resources to help me express my feelings of rage and hurt in a way that could be transformative for him and I. Instead, I remained silent. The reaction of silence when someone spews hate speech communicates complacency. White people find themselves in experiences where they could speak up against racism daily. I hope that by highlighting occasions where I have fallen short in moments of silence will inspire others to do the same in their lives.
If you want to learn about engaging white people in undermining white supremacy then check out your local Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) chapter meeting.
Samantha Singer is the Tzedek Social Justice Fellow at Spirit in Action working as a community organizer with the We the People: Working Together project. Samantha is originally from Charlotte, NC. She recently graduated from UNC-Asheville with a degree in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.
[i] Spirit in Action has chosen not to repeat the specific racial slur that was used in this conversation