I grew up in the city of Philadelphia at a time when schools were just beginning to be segregated. This meant the black children were actually counted in each classroom making sure a certain number was met. White was certainly still the majority but kids bussed from other neighborhoods were literally sprinkled into each classroom. Philadelphia also had a large Catholic population and often you would refer to your neighborhood as “the parish” you lived in. The majority of those Catholic families pulled their kids out of public schools by the third grade and sent them to a “good” Catholic school where it was assumed they would learn better and be safer. There were some of course who sincerely wanted religion to be part of their child’s upbringing, but for many they’d only show up to church on the obligatory Christmas and Easter.
It was during those informative school years that I’ve often pointed to moments that made me think of myself as “not racist”. For example, my first childhood crush was on a little black boy named Derick. I would write “I love Derick”, all over my school books. I can remember my mom discouraged this and would tell me not to tell people I liked him. At the time I thought it was because I was too young to have a boyfriend, but a few years later, when I was still too young and my crush turned to a little white boy, it suddenly became ok to speak about it. I knew the difference. I saw the prejudice and it upset me.
Moving on to middle school I discovered my love for basketball. I was recruited to the schools team and was a starting forward. I was a huge Philadelphia 76ers fan and Julius Erving was my favorite player. Bobby Jones a star power forward on the 76ers at the time was the only white starter on the team and since I was the only white girl on my school’s team, my nickname quickly became Bobby Jones. When I would make a shot from outside the three point line or drive to the basket and make a layup the whole gymnasium would shout, “Bobby Joooooones…” I remember wishing they’d yell, “Errrrrving.” Erving was so cool, and Jones in my eyes was a tall, goofy looking white man. Race riots were common in our school, and many times we were on the local 6:00 news because of them. They were serious, kids bringing knives, making bomb threats. I never remember feeling unsafe because the black kids “liked me”. They had my back, since I was on the team and all.
Through my middle school and high school years many of my closest friends were black. I thought later in my life that we related in a way that I didn’t with many of the white kids. I had always felt like nothing was expected of my life. College wasn’t necessary according to my family, art was a hobby and nice, just go get a respectable job, a respectable young lady would do. Keep your head down and stay out of trouble. Don’t bring attention to yourself. Get married and have kids. I thought my black friends’ parents didn’t expect better for them either and probably sent them the same messages. That was a generalization I would later regret. Who the hell was I to assume what their families wanted for them?
My senior year of high school I was being scouted by many colleges. Neither one of my parents had ever seen me play a basketball game. I was team captain and had been offered several partial scholarships and two full rides. One was to Kentucky State and the other to Cheyney University in Pennsylvania (which was originally called the Institute for Colored Youth). I believed wholeheartedly that the recruiters from Cheyney only wanted me at their school because I was white. They were now being forced into having their own status quo and with my good grades and decent jump shot I fit the bill. I remember thinking, that’s clearly why they want me, because their scouts just sat in the bleachers and saw two of my black teammates play so much better than me, why are they not even asking about them? I wouldn’t even consider going to Cheyney, not because I would have been part of the 1% white population attending, but based on a matter of principal that it just wasn’t fair. I wouldn’t end up going to Kentucky either. My parents would later tell me they never sent the required paperwork in, and they would not allow me to go to college to play basketball.
Fast forward to today and I’ve created this project Girl Noticed. I do murals in many underserved, marginalized communities. My artwork has celebrated many black women and young girls, and somehow through all these years I thought because of the list of events I just described about my youth all of this made me “not racist”.
I was wrong.
I realize now that I have recounted these and other events many times out-loud and in my head as making me different or somehow special as a white person. Singling myself out as “better than” other whites. If you are black and reading this I know you know exactly what I’m talking about. Privileged white people insisting it is not me but them. I am different. But am I? Are you? I am privileged based solely on the color of my skin every single day. I have seen racism over and over again only to say “that’s not me”. The passiveness of saying not me, of saying I am disgusted by others racist actions, but then sitting back and waiting for the problems to go away on their own does not make me an exception but a bigger part of the problem. Even accepting that some racism will never go away makes me complacent.
It’s time to stop talking, stop explaining, stop exceptionalizing, and start listening. It’s time to accept you are racist and so am I. Then and only then, will we move towards Step 2. Consider the fact, you don’t even know what step two is. You haven’t the slightest clue, neither do I. How about we shut up and listen to what it needs to be.
“Shallow understating from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Luke warm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” … Dr. Martin Luther King