Snippets of My Story: Thoughts On Racial Bias
A friend I knew when I lived in Missouri posted a story on Facebook about the first time someone called her the “n” word. She was in second grade on the playground at school. It was her turn during a game of tetherball, and, as she stepped up to play, she paused as to resecure a bandaid on her wrist that was covering a scratch. A boy, who thought she was taking too long, told her to hurry up, then called her the “n” word.
She writes that she didn’t actually know what the word meant, but based on the reactions of her classmates, she knew it was bad. So, she threw the ball at him and pushed him to the ground.
She recalls the way her white friends stood back and watched. None of them intervened or spoke up for her. She ended her post saying: “I still have that scar on my left wrist. Every once in a while I look at it and remember that day in second grade. And I remember all the people over the years who did nothing.”
That last sentence stung.
I recently got into a Facebook debate with a couple people about our President’s recent round of racist remarks. They disagreed with me that telling four congresswomen of color to “go back to where they came from” was racist. I don’t want to get into all of that here (you can read the debate on the page if you want). But the exchange left me at a loss and I’ve wondered what I can do to move the race conversation forward when so many people who look like me want to see it end.
As I’ve grown in awareness of my own racial biases and tendencies to overlook racist behavior, I’ve asked my friends what I can do to help. It’s easy to feel helpless, or like I’m just yelling out into the abyss. But every time, they give me the same answer: Tell your story.
“Tell your story,” they say, “because you have people who will listen to you that may not listen to us.”
So, this is my story...or at least, small snippets of it:
1a: Starbucks Navy Pier : May 2012
I moved to Chicago last week and got a job working at Starbucks Navy Pier. I was excited about the job until I realized Navy Pier is the absolute worst place a person can work. It’s filled with tourists who want their vanilla bean frappuccinos RIGHT NOW.
They form long lines and demand you remake their morning coffee because you put ½ the packet of raw sugar in instead of ¼ the packet. Get your own damn sugar, is what I really want to tell them.
My coworkers are nice enough, but none of them look like me. They’re black and Hispanic. They use words I’ve never heard before and talk so fast and so loud that I can barely understand what they’re saying.
I’ve got anxiety and I don’t know why. Navigating transition, sure. I’ve moved to a new city. But this feels like something more.
1b: Starbucks Navy Pier: June 2012 Pt. 2
Tatiana gives me a black girl name to welcome me into the fold. She calls me Keisha because apparently, I have attitude. I call her Caroline because her sweet demeanor reminds me of a Southern belle.
She teaches me that if I want Roy to share his bacon with me in the morning I have to ask him the right way. It’s “ROY! WHERE DA BACON AT?” not “Can I please have a piece of your bacon?”
I try it and it works.
I like these people, but something’s still off inside me, and I can’t quite put my finger on it.
A month into my job and I realize what it is: culture shock.
I’m in America, and I’m experiencing culture shock.
I haven’t felt this way since I went to China two summers ago, but looking around, no one looks like me, no one talks like me, no one dresses like me.
I don’t know how to be who I am here, and it’s really uncomfortable.
I feel out of place and wonder— is this what the black kids in my school felt like? Do black people always feel this way? Is it even okay for me to think these questions?
2: Target on State Street : July 2012
I need to buy more toilet paper and shampoo. The Target on State Street is the only one I know how to get to so I headed there after work one afternoon.
My basket is full and I scan the check out lines to see which one is shorter.
There’s a lot of black people working here. Where I’m from, black people work at Walmart.
The thought flutters across my mind almost unnoticed, but I catch it.
It’s an odd thought to have. I choose a lane with a black cashier to prove to myself that I don’t care who works where. But I’m embarrassed and wonder why I have this thought.
3: Loveworks Spotlight on Race : Winter 2013
My church hosts a discussion on race in Chicago, and I go. Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country and I want to learn why.
I hear the term “redlining” for the first time and learn how banks and investors intentionally denied black people loans, mortgages, and other financial services to keep them from moving into certain areas throughout the Civil Rights movement.
Legislation passed in the late 70s making redlining illegal (that wasn’t that long ago, was it?). Nevertheless, the practice continued in various ways.
People argue that in America anyone can make something of themselves if they work hard enough. I realize, for the first time, that might not actually be true and white people might be the reason.
4: Prayer Gathering: August 2014
Michael Brown was killed by police officers in Ferguson, Missouri last night. Tonight, I sit in a circle at Soul City Church with a collection of other black, brown, and white people. I realize this is the first time I’ve been in a prayer meeting with so many shades of skin. Why did I think segregated churches were normal?
I hear their stories. I listen to their fear. I share some of my own. I realize the only thing I can do in this moment is to be sad and to pray. I realize our collective inability to acknowledge the pain we have caused and the pain that we feel will only further the racial divide, not shrink it.
I lament. I write about it. I decide I never want to go to an exclusively white church again.
5: Writing Group: Spring 2016
I cozy up on a sectional sofa next to a bunch of my favorite women. It’s early on a Saturday morning. We hold laptops in our laps and hot drinks in our hands - my perfect start to the weekend.
My writing group is made up of two other white women, three black women, and a Brazilian. We meet once a month to read each other’s work and give feedback. We listen, we encourage, we laugh.
Taylor’s up next. She writes a piece about learning to love her skin. It’s short. It’s beautiful. We discuss. She processes her desire to write more about racial identity. She makes some comment about shopping at Target and wondering why her hair products are relegated to a small section labeled “ethnic” when the white hair products get whole aisles with no additional labels. Why is her hair ethnic and mine is not?
I realize white privilege is my hair being considered normal and her hair being classified as ethnic. My skin “normal”, and her skin “other”.
6: Friendship: 2018
My friend Kiara tells me a similar story, a frustrating story about not being able to find a “nude” tank top to wear under a dress for a wedding. She’s got dark brown skin and all the tank tops are...well...not.
Who named the color nude anyway?
Oh….a white person...that’s who.
7: Black History Month: February 2018
I decide I’m going to read a book by a black author in honor of Black History Month. I proudly tell my two friends and ask them for some recommendations.
They don’t call me out. They just offer a few titles.
I later realize I shouldn’t be reading black authors just because it’s Black History Month. I should be reading them because they’re authors and they have something good to say.
How come I don’t know of very many black authors anyway?
8a. Made Maven Meetup: June 2019
My friends invite me to a meet up for female entrepreneurs. I say yes and head downtown. I get there and realize Made Mavens is a group for women of color. Am I really supposed to be here?
Taylor greets me at the check in and we walk in together. We peruse the booths set up by black-owned business women. They pass out hair care samples and I wonder if they’re really for me.
“Can I even use these?” I ask Taylor.
“Of course you can!” she replies. “Your hair is curly! And even if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be bad for you to use them. You just wouldn’t get all the benefits.”
I stick the shampoo and conditioner in my bag and wonder if people think it’s weird that I’m here.
8b. Made Maven Meetup: June 2019 Pt. 2
Lindsay meets us shortly before the panel discussion starts. We take our seats and Love on Top by Beyoncé hits the speakers. Just about every woman in the room starts singing. I don’t know the words. I’m uncomfortable, but I also kind of love it.
Made Maven founder, Kris Christian takes the stage and gets everyone on their feet. We dance while she sings Before I Let Go through the mic. I’m caught off guard, but also it’s so fun.
I lean over to Lindsay and say, “We’re definitely not at a white people event.”
“I know!” she says. “That’s why I invited you! Isn’t it great?”
I listen as a panel of women talk about their experiences as entrepreneurs and women in business. Some of the discussion is for me and some of it is not.
I have never had to battle microaggressions in the workplace. I don't know what it’s like for people to react to me differently in person than they did on the phone; they’re surprised I’m a black woman because I have a white sounding name.
I realize it’s okay that some of this isn’t for me because most things are. I finally understand what Lindsay means when she says it’s hard to know if a certain women’s conferences are for her when the fliers only ever picture white speakers and worship leaders.
Would any of them be able to speak to her experience?
9. Chicago Coffee Shop : July 2019
I write this post and I pray. I wonder, “Did I say enough? Have I said too much?” Racial equity is a complex issue, but I believe it’s one we need to continue to address.
It’s easy, when we start naming the ugly parts of ourselves - the thoughts we almost ignore, the “I can’t believe I just did that” moments - to feel shame, to want to hide them, to pretend like they’re not there.
But they’re there whether or not we choose to acknowledge them.
I read a quote somewhere that said “You cannot heal what you won’t reveal,” and I thought, “Dang...how true is that?”
We cannot heal what we won’t reveal.
If you feel resistance to the issues of race, white privilege, nationalism, etc...then I’d invite you to see that resistance as a sign that it’s time to lean in.
Will leaning in make you uncomfortable? Absolutely it will. But isn’t discomfort for the sake of others what we’re really called to do? Lean in — we owe to those who have suffered to examine ourselves today.
I also want to say that I’m aware this story focuses solely on racial bias towards black and African American people. There are other cultures and people groups that I have only just begun to learn about and question whether any racial biases have affected my thinking in the past. The work of unearthing racial bias is cross-cultural. I don’t think you can escape this life without developing some kind of racial bias no matter what your ancestry or color of your skin. We’d be wise to stay open to this work of uncovering it because only then will we be able to repent, learn, and ultimately celebrate the God-given beauty placed inside each of us.