oh what work remains

My dear friend (and former colleague) Deirdre shared a video today, as well as a memory of seeing her own beloved grandfather disrespected by a young white girl in South Carolina. DeeDee’s willingness to be open with her experiences, and to do so in a way that sometimes shocks and discomfits white folks at all levels and from all places on the political, economic, and academic spectrum, is tremendous. I’m privileged to witness it.

Her memory and this video bring up a memory that’s never far from the surface for me. It’s so significant I may well have brought it up on this blog before, but it bears repeating.

A few years ago, Wise and I visited a bouncy house facility in Oxford, Mississippi. This place had a giant slide. Wise and another little boy were going up and down it over and over. I was standing there, thinking of who knows what, enjoying a few minutes of peace even in a loud space. Any break from being the entertainment committee for your under five-year-old child is welcome.

But then I heard the man supervising the children on the slide say to the other little boy, a black child, “Hey, boy, slow down; hold the rope while you climb up.” Jarred, I started listening more closely to what was happening.

Wise jumped off the slide and ran to the stairs.

“Young man,” the conductor said, “slow down; hold the rope.”

Hold on, I thought, maybe I’m just being oversensitive.

Then it happened again, and again, and again. I looked around. No one else seemed to register anything. I thought, “Oh my god, I cannot raise my child in this.”

Deirdre excused me from not having spoken out at the moment because I suffered as an outsider enough in Mississippi. She’s very kind. It still bothers me, though, and I think the experience has had a major effect on how I discuss race with my children and how I hope I’d approach a similar situation now. I have called out people for calling young black men and boys “boy” in this vein. I usually get a hostile or mocking response, but maybe my words plant a seed in someone’s mind.

This is the work everyone can do in this country, and it’s especially incumbent upon white people. I care a lot about how it makes my friends feel to see their family members treated poorly and how it makes children feel to see their elders disrespected. But I also care about how it feeds implicit feelings of white supremacy and bolsters structural racism more broadly.

I don’t want my sons to grow up thinking they deserve better treatment and more respect simply because they’re white men. I worry about the underlying feelings of entitlement and false self-confidence Hoot and Wise might imbibe simply by seeing and hearing themselves receive different treatment for no other reason at all. At the end of the day, as Kwame Toure once told me, the most important work I can do would be to change hearts and minds among my own people, and who could possibly be more my own people than them?

Please, take a moment to watch this powerful testimony from Maya Angelou.

a video of Maya Angelou

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