In high school I had a best guy friend who truly cared about me. When I failed my parking test he drove around all night stealing orange construction cones. He took me to an abandoned parking lot and set them up and tried to help me learn to parallel. On winter nights he would call and ask if I wanted to go drive around looking at Christmas lights. We told each other everything. We talked about our future and our pasts, we dreamed together, and we remained “best friend’s.”
At 17 years old I wasn’t comfortable enough to be honest with myself. I made excuses for him, and why he never wanted to move our relationship that was already so much more than friendship, to officially being more than friends. I figured I wasn’t pretty enough, or maybe I knew him too well. I told people he was just scared. He wasn’t.
The truth was pretty obvious, but too painful for me to admit. He didn’t want to date me because I was black. He was embarrassed. He worried that someone would harass him or maybe his parents wouldn’t approve. I learned at 17 years old, people can kiss black girls and still be prejudice, but I wouldn’t allow myself to believe it until I was 31.
I had a good friend in middle school. She had blond hair and blue eyes and was the star of every sports team she tried out for. We would talk on the phone and laugh. She knew my secrets and I knew hers. We had a plan to have our first slumber party. I was so excited. We would listen to music and prank call guys we liked. Her mom said she had to meet me first. As I walked up to the window of her minivan, I saw her eyes widen. Our slumber party got cancelled. She said it was because her parents didn’t know my parents, and at 12 I let myself believe that.
The truth however, was that my dad was black, and her mom didn’t want her to stay the night with an interracial family. You can pick up your daughter’s friends after sport events, buy them ice cream, and still be racist. I knew that at 12. But I couldn’t accept it until I was 31.
I am reading a book with my students called White Awake; an Honest Look at What It Means to Be White by Daniel Hill. In it he talks about the normalization of white culture. Basically, we measure all other cultures against how acceptable they are to white culture. He talks about how his friend Jonathan, who happens to be Filipino and a pastor, posted about how devastated he was after Trump won the November 2016 election.
Jonathan perceived Trump to be racist, and as most minorities, was shocked when Trump won with the support of 81% of white Christians. Another pastor friend, who happened to be white, wrote on Jonathan’s Facebook post. “I’ve never once thought of you as any different from me and nobody else will see you any different either” he said.
Hill, who himself is white, reflects on this exchange by saying, “his logic was likely formed at a subconscious level, but he was nonetheless basing his reassurance on Jonathan’s proximity to whiteness…” He translates his friends post to Jonathan in more direct language by saying, “Jonathan, there is nothing for you to be afraid of. When I see you, I don’t see a Filipino man. I see someone white, or at least acceptable to whites. I am confident that other white people will see you like this as well.”
When I read this my heart stopped. Growing up biracial, I heard this type of assurance all the time. Well-meaning white friends would tell me that, “they didn’t think of me as any different than them.” Which really meant, “it’s okay Heather, you aren’t THAT black,” which meant I was acceptable.
The funny thing is, I always felt okay being black? Why was my blackness something that you had to pretend you didn’t notice? What was so wrong with being black? Other than the fact that it wasn’t white.
I had teachers who taught me that you can care about your students and still let racial prejudice influence your dealings with them. I had a track coach who taught me that black women were simply too opinionated, that I needed to know my place. I knew church members who said that God loved everyone, but then vacated pews where black families would sit. You can be a Christian and still be a racist. I didn’t want to believe that when I was younger, but I have no choice but to believe it now.
I also had a white mother who told me my skin was beautiful. She said my curly hair didn’t need to be straightened. She encouraged me to keep speaking up, even when people told me to be quiet. She never told me she didn’t see that I was black, she told me that being black was part of what made me so beautiful.
I have a white best friend who gets mad when I don’t leave my hair natural. She says that I don’t have to buy into societies definition of what beauty is. Her biggest fear is that her daughter will go to a school without diversity, and she doesn’t want her to grow up not valuing people who look different than she does.
I have a white husband who believes in black leadership. He wants his children to embrace the heritage that they have come from. He wants his wife to live in a country where her experiences are validated. He wants to raise kids in a country where black athletes can kneel to protest injustice, and where white men and women can kneel beside them. He believes that immigrants work harder for less, and that Heaven will be filled with differences.
I refuse to rely on only one group of these experiences to define where America is when it comes to race in this country. I am lucky to have had rays of light, that chase back the clouds of darkness. Light always wins.
I feel honored and lucky that God saw fit to dress my earthly body in dark skin. I feel like I can love people harder and identify more easily with other marginalized groups in our society. I feel a deep sense of connection to anyone who identifies as “other,” in religious, sexual, and racial categories.
I can honestly say I want to be a voice for the voiceless, and a big reason why, is because I’m black.
Heather Thompson Day is an Associate Professor of Communication at Andrews University. She is the author of 6 Christian books including Life After Eden, available now. You can follow Heather on Twitter or IG at HeatherThompsonDay
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