My mother shared with me the following essay written by Rebekah Bell, a friend of hers from El Paso, Texas. Rebekah is a professor at El Paso Community College. Her daughter "Momo" (named below) and her son are multi-racial. I share Rebekah's words here.
This past Spring Momo had a cognitive awakening related to the history of Slavery in this country. She was reading about the abolitionist Fredrick Douglass; became fascinated with the Civil War era, and the fight to end slavery. Somewhere in that process someone taught her how to “do the math” concerning her ethnic composition. She learned that any amount of Black ancestry automatically made you black. That led a quiet conversation where she informed me, with tears in her eyes, that if she and I lived 200 years ago… that *I* could have owned *her*.
I can’t express what that did to me. Much has been written about the notion of “white privilege”, but for me that moment defined it. I had always thought of slavery as a terrible thing. But it wasn’t until that moment that I realized how debasing it was and continues to be. My beautiful, strong, brilliant, compassionate baby. 175 years later, that historical fact could still reach a cold hand through history and define my child… affecting how she thinks and feels about herself. Someone could have owned her.
I have been hearing a lot of people talk about what is happening now, both in Ferguson and around the US. What is tragic to me is not what is being said about what happened. It isn’t the broken judicial system. It isn't the details of the day. It is that, again, that same cold hand reaches through history. Defining us. And it appears that we are powerless to do anything about it.
I have heard so many people feel that they must defend themselves. That being white doesn’t mean they are racist. That being a member of law enforcement they are not bad people. That being marginalized is a real experience. That the pain felt is not a conveniant fiction but a real life experience that is being lived by many.
I have lived a life so different from the one I see my children living. No one ever asked me “where I was from” when I was growing up. Yet everyone asks my children this question. No one ever stopped me at a border check point. Yet there was a time that my husband had to provide documentation, when traveling between states, that proved he was my children’s father.
What does that do to a child? To see a world that constantly watches and questions? I see in my children the development of a confusion that I never knew. I hear my children struggling to define themselves in a world that still sees race first, and personhood second. When my daughter was in daycare she came home to tell me that she had lost her “best friend” that day. She was 4 years old. Apparently they were playing on teams, and one child was excluded because he was “brown”. When my daughter came to his defense and announced that she was “black” she lost on the team. She came home to tell me that until that day, all the other 4 year olds thought she was “white”… but now she was considered brown. And that changed things for her.
The events in Ferguson are merely anecdotes of the large story that is being told. You can switch out the names, faces, towns, and dates with any other person or place, any community in this country. Because the problem isn’t black or white. The problem isn’t police or poverty. The problem is that a long time ago we, and by "we" I mean the white empowered establishment, took away the personhood of an entire group of people. And regardless of laws passed. Education provided. Jobs fought for and gained. We have never found a way to give back what was taken and that moment in history resonates. It creates an echo that my child can still hear.
I know it isn’t popular. I know people say I have unnecessary guilt. But I feel that there is a need to atone. As a country. For what we have done. To recognize that institutionalized inequality still resonates. That we have not found a way as a civilization to speak the words, or empower the actions that can heal. That our past, haunts us.
This, is the tragedy of Ferguson. That ghosts still walk, talk, and create a darkness that continues to lay claim to our future. And yet we have not gained the ability, not even hundreds of years later, to have a meaningful dialog on what to do to heal our past. Pain instead leads to greater pain. A vortex that as it expands it evidences all the more that we are losing our ability to talk about our problems and deal with them in a civilized manner. And a community that cannot do that, cannot continue to consider itself a “civilization”.
I honestly don’t know what really happened between a young man, and a police officer, in Missouri several months ago. Sadly, I don’t even think that it matters. Because everything that has happened since has told the story, yet again, of how stereotypes of prejudices can come to define our debates… on both sides of the divide. But I do know this, I have one child that considers himself to be black. And if there is even the slimmest of chance that several months ago a young black man faced undo danger because he was black, then everything in my heart screams for reform.
Because the real enemy here isn’t “racial profiling and police brutality”. It isn’t the “thug behavior of an adolescent.” The real enemy is older than any of this. And the words that we are afraid to say allow it to hide. That day facing my daughter, I realized that the past defines us all. Until that moment, slavery and institutionalized differences were only concepts to me. Through my children, I am learning to acknowledge that others have the burden of living with them. They are far more than distant concepts. And if we can, as a community, become brave enough to acknowledge that… then perhaps we can begin to address the pain that causes explosions like Ferguson. And perhaps then we can create a world in which our children never have to live with the pain of our past.