"What the fuck are you doing?!" Jimmy looks at me surprised. "What?" he doesn't seem to understand that not only has he guaranteed us getting our asses whipped, he has also just screamed a word I had been told never to utter. A word, I have been taught in school, at my neighbors' houses, and in the alleys of our neighborhood, that means much more than its two syllables can describe.
A word, which, in my house, is really the only one we cannot speak, under any circumstances. To this point in my very young life, it is the only word I am afraid of. And he just screamed it. On my block. Within earshot of this boy, but also of every other human on my block who might be around. All I can think is, we are so dead. I am so dead. And I have no way to excuse it. I have no words to deflect fault. Jimmy is my friend. Holy fuck my mom is going to kill me. I am so dead.
About five minutes later, I go home. I walk into the kitchen cautiously and I am greeted by Veona, the woman who takes care of my brother and I while my parents are working on Fridays. Oh shit. I feel horrible. She smiles at me and offers me something to drink. "You look funny, hun," she is at the sink filling the iron with water. I can barely look at her. I am so hoping she did not hear. "I am going to lie down," I offer up as I slink past her. I go up to my room and lie on my bed. I start to figure out if there is a way I can avoid going to school for the rest of my life, but it is hopeless. I know that sooner or later, I am going to get my ass whipped. Fuck.
The next day, I go to the Village Hall with my brother and some neighbors to play ball. We are in the middle of a game when the kid from the day before walks up to me. He towers over me. I am mortified, shaking. But I look up at him, and when I say up, I mean I am looking as far up as I can because he is standing about an inch away from me and looking directly down at me. He yells at me, "I heard what you called me!" I yell back, "it wasn't me!" He screams, "it sounded like a girl to me!" Ugh. I am so dead. I lower my voice, still looking up at him. I might as well be looking directly into the sun he is so angry, shaking too. "I would never say that word."
He stops shaking. He looks at me differently. I breathe in and close my eyes, I figure, after he hits me, I will just stay down. I deserve it anyway. But nothing happens. When I open my eyes, I see his back moving away from me. I am so relieved I almost collapse. I can't believe I am not going to get the shit beat out of me.
My brother comes up to me and asks what he was talking about. I tell him the story from the day before. He tries to comfort me by telling me that at least mom and dad didn't hear it. "I didn't SAY IT!" I scream at him. I am shaking again. He replies that he knows that, but it is still a good thing they didn't hear it.
I leave the field and go home. I am relieved I didn't get my ass handed to me, but now, all these people know. They know Jimmy is a racist and I am a friend of a racist.
And this is how it starts. We allow it. I have allowed it. And eventually, you see where it leads. Growing up where I did, how I did, I had the opportunity to be surrounded by people of all colors and backgrounds. I was lucky. I saw the projects. I saw racism every day, practically. I had friends who used that unspeakable word. I would either speak up or not, depending upon how threatened I felt in the moment.
Then I moved to the PNW (Pacific Northwest), and that all kinda went away...because there were so few people of color here in '91. Well..actually, it was just much more segregated. Still today, very few, and well, most white people here, if we ever have a conversation about race, which frankly, never happens, it all centers on that they don't believe that it is that hard for African Americans. The fucked up thing is that, as hard as it is now, it used to be much worse. WAY WORSE. And people don't believe it is that hard now. It is mind blowing.
And part of me says that white people don't believe it because they don't want to believe it. That it is just too horrible to accept as a reality. But I also think, being the white person in this scenario, that it is because we don't want to accept the rage. We cannot sit with the justifyable anger that is now centuries old. Just as many men I know don't think there is much sexism anymore.
It is hard to allow someone to be angry. Even harder to sit with that anger and be there for them as they are and not be able to do anything about it. Even harder when you know you will never have to experience what they are angry about, maybe even be at fault in some measure for what they are angry about.
We all know what it feels like to be shitty. To be the person who caused the pain. To be the person who allowed the shitty thing to occur. That is a universal human experience that we have all had. But not everyone walks around with a target on their back. Not everyone can really grasp the gravity of understanding that in some measure, you are absolutely without protection, and in fact, the object of some person's misguided pain.
I recently saw the play, Hands Up, at the Portland Performing Arts Center. Put on by The Red Door Project. It is seven monologues from seven different authors centered on the police shootings of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO and John Crawford III in Beavercreek, Ohio, and many others. It is stunning to witness this perspective; to feel, viscerally, that there are people in this world who are in danger of losing their lives when approached by police. Even the fear of this, knowing that this happens in the world, is enough to keep you scared.
It is like me hiding on the porch that day. I was scared. But looking back, I know that the kid I was afraid of? He was scared too. He was walking down the middle of the street in broad daylight. In that neighborhood, you only walked down the middle of the street when you were avoiding what might be waiting for you just beyond the sidewalks. But I never had to do that. I only walked down the middle of the street at night. Well, actually, I was usually running.
I have been too scared all my life, and I don't think I have been more scared than anyone else, but I think that is what keeps us all from moving forward, and frankly, what keeps things getting worse.
I don't speak for all white people, or all women, or all blondes, or all short people, but I do know that when I am afraid, I am usually not in my right mind. I am usually not able to do the thing that is best for all concerned. Being afraid, acting on my fear has never done anyone any good.
So the best thing I can do is get over that. The best thing I can do is admit to it. Then be better. Be conscious. Understand beyond a shadow of a doubt that I won the white girl lottery. But that I live in a world that I am responsible for creating, and that in order to live in one that I can tolerate, I will have to do better than I have.
I will have to learn to be okay with fear, mine and the fear of others, and then come down from off of my friend's porch.