Maria and I were both out of breath when we reached the corner, but that didn’t slow our pace. In fact, the lack of traffic caused our feet to quicken — we ran down the road, past an open field, and over to our neighbors house, where we hid amongst their hedges.
I remember listening for their chatter, and their laughter. I remember listening for the sound of the steps, but the only thing I could hear was a heartbeat: my heartbeat.
My hands trembled. My legs shook. My mind raced.
Where could we go? What could we do? How were we going to get away? They’re bigger. They’re stronger. They’re faster, and they’ve got fistfuls of rocks. They’ve got stones.
Still without a solution, I peeked through the shrubbery — hoping to see them in the distance, confused and running in the other direction. But instead of spotting them, I saw something better: I saw my father.
This, I thought. This is how we get away.
I grabbed Maria’s hand and pulled her forward. We popped out of the bushes and ran towards my father and his car and, without a word, we jumped inside. Eventually, we had to tell him what happened; and so we did: We told him we were being chased by Sonya. Well, by Sonya and her friends. But why we were being chased? Well, neither of us could manage to actually say those words. At least not right away.
But after dropping Maria off, I told my father the truth: “It’s because Maria is black. They chased us because Maria is black, and they don’t like her.”
They did more then just chase us, though — they threw stones at us, too. All because my best friend was black. Of course, the color of her skin meant nothing to me, but in their eyes she was not as good as them. She was “bad.” She was less-than.
That’s about as much as my little 10-year-old self could understand back then. What I didn’t fully get until years later, was that the reasons they chased us ran far deeper than I ever could have realized. The reason they chased us was because racism, bigotry, and hatred still exist, in their most raw, vile, and repugnant forms.
Until that day, I genuinely believed we were part of a “better generation.” I may not have thought of it in those terms exactly, but I can remember naively thinking that discrimination and bigotry were far behind us; obscure concepts, relics from our country’s sordid past. I was born in 1984, after all — post-slavery, post-segregation, post-Civil Rights. I prided myself on being a generous and loving kid. Kind and open-minded. And above all, “colorblind.”
I don’t see shades; I see people, I can remember thinking — probably after reading it in a book somewhere.
But the day I was chased with my friend Maria, my privileged little bubble popped, and I became keenly aware of the world I truly lived in, and still live in.
Make no mistake: This was but one incident in my life, and I’m not sharing it to exploit my friend’s plight, or even for any empathy for myself. Because at the end of the day, I didn’t just walk away unscathed, I walked away white. And even though I can still remember the fear I felt that day, I have no idea how many more moments like that Maria might have faced on her own, and I still don’t know what it’s like to be targeted or victimized simply because of my skin color.
Now, over two decades later and with a daughter of my own, I think about that day a little more often — as well as the greatest lesson it taught me.
Raising our kids to be “colorblind” doesn’t do anyone any favors. Instead, it fosters a kind of naïveté and ignorance, invalidates the feelings of those who experience discrimination, and often, can encourage even more racism as a result.
I know that goes a little against what we’ve been taught. So many of us Gen X-ers and Gen Y-ers were raised to see people and not skin tones. We were told that the best way to achieve racial equality was to simply treat everyone equally, and to pay no mind to race, culture, or ethnicity. But unfortunately, dismissing race or pretending it somehow doesn’t exist and isn’t dividing us is just as problematic, because it creates a society that denies negative racial experiences even happen. And in the process, it discredits the people who are experiencing them.
I’ll be honest, it’s hard to know where to go from here, when you’re just one voice in 321 million. That’s how I feel, anyway — one shy, shaky, uncertain voice who sometimes feels a bit lost and out of place in this conversation.
But here’s what I do know: I know that if we want to be the “change generation” — the generation 10-year-old me believed we already were back in 1994 — then we need to start having some difficult conversations. We need to start talking more about race, with each other and with our kids, even if it feels foreign or uncomfortable. Because the current racial climate in America proves that this is not a problem that we’ve overcome, and certainly not something we can turn a blind eye to simply because it doesn’t affect us, or because we believe we’re not a part of the problem.
The fact is, it is a problem — a huge one — and it’s not going away unless we do more.
So keep your mind open, learn what you can, and listen to your fellow humans. Read the articles they read, follow the blogs they follow, ask them if they want to share their thoughts, their feelings, and their opinions with you. And if they do, then listen. (I mean really listen.) Subscribe to ally networks, like Safety Pin Box or Training for Change’s Whites Confronting Racism. Try to understand social, political, educational, financial, and occupational issues through their eyes. (This can best be done by diversifying the media you consume.)
And, most importantly, stand up, show up, and speak up — without speaking over — and remember that being “colorblind” is simply no longer an option.