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Owning It

Until recently, I never paid much attention to the original name of the state I’ve lived in for 30 years. Officially, it’s the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, settled in 1636 by religious leader Roger Williams.

Because of that inflammatory "plantations" word, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is an attempt to shorten our name to Rhode Island in November 2020. The Black Lives Matter movement has changed everything.

When I was very young, I was taught to say "colored people" instead of "negro." That was the polite word for the Black race, I was told. In our house, we never used that other "N" word—the hateful one—for fear of having our mouths washed out with soap. I did hear it on the playground—sometimes as a rhyme. But whenever I needed to count something, I always used the "Eeny, meeny, miny, mo, catch a piggy by the toe" version.

As a military brat who had lived in Europe with Black Americans as my friends and schoolmates, bigotry just didn’t register. Regardless of our skin color and our hometowns, we were all just Americans in a foreign land, united in our desires to return to the States. If there was racism at my schools, I never saw it.

One day in St. Louis in 1974, I was stabbed in an attempted rape by a Black man.

I’ll never know if the police ever captured the assailant, but I do remember the words of my uncle when he picked me up from the hospital: "See what I mean? A Black man did this to you! Are you gonna still defend them?"

I knew what he meant by "them." We had argued about "them" before and no, I did not hate Black people, just because I was assaulted one time by a Black man. It could have easily been a White man, I told my uncle.

Many years later, I worked for a Black nationally-syndicated television show in Washington, D.C. I was proud to be the only White person on staff, to be included and recognized as an ally. I felt no prejudice towards my fellow co-workers, nor did I feel they treated me differently because I was White. We were a team.

Currently in the United States, there are two colors at war. Nationwide protests have arisen because of the multitude of injustices towards the Black race by the Blue-uniformed police forces. We have seen the "red flags" of warning for many years and, as a result, thousands have banded together with "Black Lives Matter" and "I Can’t Breathe" signs to protest centuries of inhumane treatment toward Black Americans.

One of the Black protesters said he just wanted "to be free and not have to think about every step I take because at the end of the day, being Black is a crime.”

I’ve had many Black friends and co-workers over the years, but I don’t recall ever asking how they felt about being Black. To me, it would have been as ludicrous as someone asking me how it felt to be White.

Readers, the end of slavery in the United States was officially proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. And now, here we are, nearly 200 years later, at a historic turning point. At this moment, real changes are being made by corporations and individuals supporting the Black Lives Matter revolution. The racial stereotype of Aunt Jemima is being retired and Uncle Ben and Mrs. Butterworth may be next. Did you hear that the Band-aid company has committed to creating a line of racially-diverse bandages to match different skin tones? I mean, who could have predicted that?

I read an article where one of the people interviewed said that White people who say they care should widen their social circle with people of color.

I applaud that idea, but the plain and awful truth is I don’t know any Black people anymore. There are no Black people in my neighborhood. Does that make me a racist? No, I didn’t plan that. It wasn’t deliberate.

But here’s what I have done deliberately. I have walked to the other side of the street when I saw a Black man approaching. More than once. More than twice. Okay, a lot.

I have told stories like this: "A Black man was shopping at the supermarket when he met his Black wife." Maybe it’s because I’m a writer and I’m used to being descriptive, but isn’t distinguishing a person’s color a form of racism? Because if the characters happen to be White, I rarely mention it.

And if somebody tells me they saw on the news that that same supermarket was robbed, I might ask: "Was it a Black guy that did it?"

Yeah, I might.

So here I am, a 64-year old White woman—a spiritual woman—who has been disillusioned to think she didn’t have a prejudiced bone in her body. Well, I may not be a hate-filled, White hood-wearing racist, but I surely have said some racist things and I’m owning it.

I’m owning it and I am ashamed.

I should know better, especially since I believe that words can hurt us, just as much as those sticks and stones.

I have heard that it isn’t the job of Black people to educate White people about racism. So, as a White person who wishes to be better, I have embraced the color energy of Yellow to educate myself. I have spent the past few weeks watching countless interviews and reading documents about slavery and racism, including the story of the origins of the Ku Klux Klan and the founding of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.

What I have learned has been enlightening and often disturbing. But see? I am not too old to learn!

I am not too old to listen to a different viewpoint nor to speak up whenever I hear racism being expressed.

Last week, I spent some time in a forum where it was announced that a private group would be established for people of color only. I was stunned.

While I certainly have no issue with people of color having their own private group, I did question the way the organization handled the matter. They made their big announcement, adding that White people need not apply because it wasn’t for them.

I feel strongly that in order to unify and heal, we need open discussion about racism with no race excluded. And I said so.

You can probably guess what happened. Despite my good intentions, I was immediately attacked. Many in the forum believed the group was a great idea because people of color needed a private, safe place to talk about their lives without White people horning in on the discussion. Others felt this was a form of segregation and discrimination against White people, and that outcry was supported by some people of color, too.

The forum thread quickly became a hotbed of anger and accusations, mostly against White privilege. And even though I had only posted once and wholeheartedly disagreed with most of what was being said, I felt my job was to listen and so I kept silent, watching and learning.

And here’s the irony: what developed was a lengthy, general discussion about racism—with no race excluded!

I may not be perfect but here’s what I know for sure: I did not choose my race nor my circumstances, but I can step up.

I am not too old to donate to organizations like Black Lives Matter, Black To The Future, Color of Change, Live Free USA, and The Conscious Kid.

And I am certainly not too old to vote for the visionaries who will work towards positive change.

The author James Baldwin said: “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

For me, talking and writing about racism has been very uncomfortable. But it is an ugly, open sore that has continued to ooze and fester, and we can no longer ignore it.

It is time we did some deep color healing and value each other as equals.


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1 Comment

Jannirose Fenimore
Jannirose Fenimore
Jun 25, 2020

This is honest and heartfelt and hopeful, Eleyne-Mari. Thank you for finding the courage to show the way.

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