I was out to dinner with my older daughter last night when I heard this comment come from behind me. It was a young woman who said it; from further discussion I overheard, she was of college age. She spoke quite loudly, enough for me to hear from several feet away. Interested in her commentary on racism, I listened. My daughter asked, “What are you doing?” “Eavesdropping,” I replied. “But I thought we weren’t supposed to do that.” I smirked, and explained that most of the time it’s not what we should do, but when someone is talking very loudly, and about something that might be questionable, at times it is okay. I’ll stand by that.
The girl continued on, telling her two table mates, her mother and brother I assume, that her school has a black sorority and fraternity. This is when I knew for sure the conversation would take a turn. And it did. She said, “I mean, they seem to always get theirs, when do we get our special stuff?” With that, I very obviously crooked my neck to the right, turned back, raised my eyebrows, and gave the girl and her entire family a look. They immediately got quieter and the topic changed.
I could have gone and spoken to her, and wonder if that is what I should have done. I don’t want to be that person who only talks of change but never does anything to actually make it happen. Truly, did I have the time to explain to her how as white people, we “get ours” on a daily basis, and she only need take History 101 to learn this has essentially always been the case? It takes more than a two-minute lecture. Honestly, I wasn’t even sure where I would begin, let alone if I was even qualified to enlighten her. I do think my look was enough to, at the very least, let her know this type of discussion is not something to subject fellow diners to. I was, and still am today, stunned she actually made this statement. I’ve heard several times before, the old “I’m not racist, but…” remarks from people. Those always induce cringing and my immediate reaction of, “Let me stop you right there.” I should probably be used to it by now, racism and prejudice spilling from others’ mouths. Maybe it’s best that I’m not used to it, though. I realize it will never feel normal to me. If it ever did become so, then I’d have lost, and I don’t ever want that to happen. What’s the point of anything if I lose my compassion and empathy for others?
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”- Martin Luther King, Jr.
I suppose I hold the young people in our world to a higher standard. To some extent, I expect generations older than me to be less open-minded, and I’ve forgiven many on the basis of them simply not knowing any better (Even though they should!). But when it comes to the young people in our world, my expectations are quite high. I want them to be better than the last generation. I assume young people will be open-minded, accepting, and that they would want a kinder, more peaceful world. It saddens me when I find out otherwise. And so moments like last night surprise me. It’s just not something I’d ever be comfortable thinking or believing, never mind saying. This was all a clear reminder of how far we as a country have to go. I can excuse this young woman, to some extent, based on perhaps limited life experience. Maybe she will grow and be exposed to different cultures, and finally have empathy for those who’ve had to fight for much more than she ever will.
I was glad we were paying the bill when I overheard all of this; at least it didn’t ruin my meal. And if anything good can come from ignorance seeping out from the table behind us, it opened up yet another important conversation with my daughter. We spoke on the drive home about the remarks, on sororities and fraternities (My daughter didn’t even know what they were.), the civil rights movement, and white privilege (Though I didn’t label it as such.). When I said to her that if you look around, white people don’t struggle the way people of color do, and that white people aren’t outcasts or treated poorly based on skin color in any way near the amount that others are. She agreed saying, “It’s not like anyone in her family was ever a slave or forced to use a separate entrance!” She got it. At almost 12, my daughter gets it. It’s a lesson I feel we all owe to our children, whatever color of skin or heritage we are. Teach them about their own culture, their own unique history, and teach them about the other cultures in the world. Those histories and stories are just as, if not at times even more, important to tell. We have far more in common than not. I’ll continue discussing equal rights with my kids, it is vital. On Monday, we will head to Philadelphia to attend a few Day of Service events. There are plenty of volunteer opportunities for families and activities in New York to check out as well. I hope parents will take advantage of those, we should expose our children to the works of Martin Luther King, Jr., to our country’s history, and open up the discussion on equality and how far we have to go.
I live in a small, predominantly white town. A few weeks ago, I finally snapped a picture of this graffiti (It’s been there for years.) from a local highway. It reminded me of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words I posted above, and made me smile. I think when we see small signs of hope, we must embrace them.