Today, I was invited by my friend Tasha Wilson to her house for coffee and a dialogue about race and the often ignored racism in modern America. So many of us express the need to have conversations that make us uncomfortable but ultimately help us to grow as people and a society. However, few of us take the steps to do this, and I learned so much just from Tasha's grace and willingness to open this door.
I first met Tasha through a 48 hour film challenge last year. Although we hadn't seen each other since, we've stayed Facebook friends. Tasha has occasionally shared things on Facebook about what it's like to be a black woman in today's society. Recently, she posted something about the current Miss Universe, who is South African. Tasha asked how many people truly understand how the world views a dark skinned woman. She said she often gets the back-handed comment that some feel is complementary: "Tasha, you're so pretty. . . . for a dark skinned woman."
I responded to the post that I myself know little of what her life and her experiences have been like, and that many people, like myself, were raised unaware of the differences between white existence and black existence. Tasha responded with "when you say that many white people don't believe a difference exists, I feel you must re-examine that statement and possibly break it down on a deeper level." She invited my over for coffee to hear more of what she meant, and I was amazed at how gracefully she did this.
After we agreed to meet the next day, she called me to make sure I knew she wasn't mad at what I'd written. When Tasha called, I could already see a glimpse of the different ways we've learned to navigate society. The fact that she felt she had to put my comfort first said so much to me about how different our experiences are. I asked myself why I hadn't called her first, and am still reflecting on why I hadn't considered her needs in the same way. We talked a lot about this, and about how I have lived a life surrounded by people who look like me. I have never made an effort to have a diverse group of friends, and as Tasha shared, this is a luxury in itself.
For many people, having friends who don't look like you isn't a choice. I have always had the ease of surrounding myself with people who look like me, and on top of that, never even considered that this was a privilege. When I go to parties, job interviews, stores, anywhere really, I have the comfort of blending in. Of course there have been Latina friends and Asian friends, but when it comes to black friends I have never made an effort to have a real connection.
We kept each other at a comfortable distance, seeing each other infrequently, and as I am now learning, this is because I have done nothing to understand what it means to be black in this world, this country, or even this city I call home. The impetus to educate myself and understand where I was failing was on me, and I ignored it. Although I threw around phrases like institutional racism, I never tried to understand what that really means. I called myself aware and progressive, but I wasn't. I was only aware of enough to give myself a sense of moral superiority to those that I considered racist.
Essentially, I did just enough to make myself feel better without actually doing anything at all. I would not have even considered how selfish, closed minded, and hurtful this is if Tasha hadn't invited me over to have a deeper look at my views.
As I was heading over to Tasha's house, I knew this was going to expose many levels of ignorance I hold. I know this is a reason many people avoid these kinds of conversations. We don't want to feel stupid. We don't want to have our social views picked apart and exposed. But this all comes back to Tasha calling me to make sure I was comfortable - for many Americans, their comfort is never a consideration, and people like myself never stop to ask how we're contributing to an inbuilt system that prioritizes white people.
As Tasha and I shared coffee (and the best french toast ever), we talked about how she had to talk to her son about what to do when he gets pulled over. She had to make sure he understood that much of society views him as a threat, just for being a black man. She had to have discussions not about his future, college, and his dreams, but how to stay alive in a racist system. We talked about her family, and how her grandparents grew up in Alabama at a time when education wasn't even an option for them.
We talked about mental health, and how few black psychologists there are. On a deeper level, we discussed how this stems from the African American community being banned from mental asylums through most of history. At some point, you've seen a TV show or movie that shows sanitariums from the the 1960's and before. Did you ever notice there were only white people there? Further still, once black men and women were admitted they were abused in such a way that it fostered a distrust of the mental health system itself. Until we talk openly about these things, we cannot heal the root of the pain we have caused and are still causing through our desire to look the other way.
We also talked about the fact that many people think everything is fine, and there is no need to have these kinds of discussions. For many people, racism is a thing of the past. For anyone who believes this, I would just have them listen to a threatening phone call Tasha received.
A man, believing she had made incendiary political remarks (she hadn't - she's not a political person and never speaks about politics) called her in a rage. Without even realizing he'd called the wrong person, he left a hateful, homophobic, racist, and threatening message (Tasha is not gay - but he still threw in that hate anyways). I was scared just listening to it, and was chilled by how easily he threw around the n word and his desire to physical hurt her.
There is so much more I would want to share about how Tasha opened my mind and heart today. Her unbelievably wise daughter Aciemarie was there also, and she said some powerful things that I will continue to reflect on. Until someone opens their heart to you, you can't know what you don't know. It takes so much grace and patience to share your experiences with a person who has not walked in your shoes. It takes an incredible amount of trust and a belief that people, when you get them to listen, are understanding and good in their core.
As much as I wish racism was a thing of the past, it's not, and the way to change that is to connect with each other. To have the conversations that make us uncomfortable. To put ourselves in situations that breakdown our views so that we can open up to new ones. And for people like myself, to ask how we're contributing, either through apathy or ignorance, to a system that is far from equal.
Thank you, Tasha, for showing me the true meaning of love and courage. You are an amazing human on every level, and you taught me something today that will reverberate for the rest of my life.