Thoughts on Racism
I started this article out with the idea of looking back at the history of race relations in North Carolina. I thought maybe I could pull together some statistics about how it is better now. I began by looking at the Civil War. I dug through the National Archives to find information on black participants. I found references to 54th Regiment of Massachusetts and other volunteers like the sons of Fredrick Douglas (Charles to the 5th Calvary and Lewis to the 54th Regiment) and even women like Harriet Tubman who fought unofficially for the Union. Black soldiers were paid less than white and they were charged for their uniforms until 1864 when Congress granted equal pay retroactively. Nearly 200,000 black men fought for the union, while it is said that only several thousand fought on the side of the Confederacy. The troops remained segregated for over 100 years. In 1948 President Truman signed an executive order creating the Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services to begin integration of the US Military. Still today we have regulations to the dress code that tells people of color they cannot have natural hair and be in the military, hair that is does not lay flat and straight is preferred over fuller hair.
Changes, but not as clear cut as you would think we could be in our countries history. I thought, ok, let’s go at this from a personal angle. I have personal experience.
When I was in a youngster in 2nd or 3rd grade the little girl who sat in front of me had braids and beads in her hair. I would play with her locks and ask her how her hair was able to have beads and ribbons. She explained that her mom sat down each day and combed her hair and put in the twists and bows. My young brain accepted that I would never have pretty hair like my black classmate because my mom never did anything but watch TV. She never sat with me and braided my hair. So I was destined to be different than my classmate not because of our hair texture or skin color but more so because her mom cared more than mine. Later in the year, while playing “Red Rover” outside I busted through the line next to my classmate and pulled her back to my side to be on my team. For those not familiar with the game, two groups are selected, the kids hold hands and call the name of someone on the opposite side to run over and break through the chain. If they don’t break through, they are added to the chain, if they do they select one of the two that broke the chain to take back to the other side. I selected my classmate with the pretty hair to come back to my team. I recall as if it were yesterday, “Come with me, slave.” are the words I spoke. I knew that a slave was a person that had to do what the other person said. My friend yanked away from me and was angry. She had tears in her eyes and said, “Don’t call me that.” I was confused. I had no idea why she was upset. She ran inside. I never approached her again. We never spoke again. It wasn’t until 1977, when Roots was released that I had any clue what the word “slave” and racial bias were all about. Here, she was well experienced in the words in our 3rd grade class, yet I had no idea. This is white privilege. No one needed to explain to me what racism was because it didn’t have an impact on my life.
Today as a nearly 50 year old woman I sit writing this paper, with dreadlocks in my hair. I have beads and ribbons, all the things that the little 8 year old wanted in her hair. Yet, I have people approaching me saying I am appropriating a culture, store managers following me and treating me as though I’m going to steal something and the need to buy scarves and head wraps to put forth a more “businesslike” appearance.
As I do more research for the piece and see so many comments about how when white people try to talk about race, they make it about them. I try to think about how editorial pieces are written. For the most part they are written based on first person experience. I know that I don’t have the slightest clue what it is like to have to explain racial bias to your children. I know that when my child made friends with the girl next door, it made no difference her race. I didn’t ask her race. It wasn’t important. When she picked out a “brown baby doll” (her words) with her birthday money, I had no issue with that. She took her toy to show and tell and was told very directly by the other children that she could not have a “brown baby”, that only brown mommies could have brown babies, I had to explain to her genetics. Was I wrong to let her pick which ever one she wanted? Should I have had a talk with her before I let her take it to school? Hindsight is 20/20 they say. I would not change my decisions. By the end of my research on this topic, to say I was disheartened and frustrated is putting it mildly. I found a website called Mapping Police Violence and it is just incredible how much goes unreported by mainstream media. I stare in awe at the screen unsure what my next move should be? How do we move forward? How do we work together to end racism? Do we call on religion or government to help? Interestingly enough the only religious text I could find that condemned racism was in the Quran, despite what modern media tries to say about Islam.
As children we are unaware of racism. We learn racism from those around us. We are taught to be nasty to each other or to judge others based on bias from the adults around us. I saw an interview between Mike Wallace and Morgan Freeman where they discuss the need to stop referring to each other as a white man and a black man but more as Mike and Morgan. Do discussions and dialog on racism actually lead to more racism? For this I have no answer. I do know that today, I wish I could return to the days of just appreciating the pretty beads in someone’s hair and wanting to have them in my own without worrying about offending someone.
Maybe the time has come to stop talking about racism and start doing something about it. Treat other people with the same kindness and respect that you would like to have given to you. That’s it. Simple.