“Miss W, are you Mexican?” was one of the first questions I was asked after I started working as a social worker in a Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia. I paused and responded “What makes you ask that, D?” “Well, you are not black. Your skin is light. You have blue eyes.” He really looked confused and was really checking out my skin and my hair. “My mom and dad are both white and I am white.” D looked at me a little puzzled and said “No, Miss W, what are you?” in a joking tone. “I’m white D, I promise. What made you want to ask that?” His response has haunted me since the moment the following words left his lips “Because white people don’t come here Miss W.”
Talk about a moment that takes your breath away. Why? D was in second grade at the time. I ended up working with him until he left for middle school and I still think of him often. As a social worker, you shouldn’t have favorite clients, but I am here to admit he was one of my favorites. I spoke to him about a year ago and I haven’t seen that little boy in over 7 years. One of the first things he said to me, “Miss W I heard you have two little boys now. I hope they know how lucky they are. I always wished I had a mom like you.” I sobbed silently into the phone that day asking how his mom, his sister, his older brother who was always in and out of juvenile detention, and his grandma were doing. He gave me the run down; his mom was struggling to pay bills, his sister was in Elementary School and still sassy, his brother was in jail, and his grandma had passed away. He was trying to do good in school, “make good choices,” but told me life was really hard for his family still. But, he excitedly told me that his mom had moved them out of Hillside Court, the public housing complex where they had lived their entire life. I asked him how that was going, whether he liked his new apartment and he said “Yeah, not as many gun shots. I feel a little safer here.”
I think of D often. At face value, we had nothing in common. We looked different, our homes were different, our neighborhoods were different, our family units were comprised of different people, he had odds stacked against him, I had odds in my favor. But that didn’t matter – we connected as people.
In the wake of the catastrophic and disheartening unfolding of the rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend I have seen so many social media posts about the anger, distaste, and fear that racist and supremacist groups would act in such a way so very close to our nation’s capital and Richmond. Unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised. There are hateful, angry, racist, and oppressive people and actions occurring every day in America. I think that it touched the general public a little closer to home and has stirred the desire to do something.
What I most fear is that after the media coverage moves on to a new topic people will refer back to their previous way of living, ignoring the ever growing concern of why is it 2017 and people are still receiving KKK fliers in driveways around Metro Richmond area? Why we still have segments of our population in America who are oppressed and marginalized, therefore unable to break out of the barriers that society has put on them?
So, many ask, what can be done? I will provide you with a few simple suggestions of how you can combat the hate and fear that is dominating the media right now.
- Talk about race relations. Not just a social media post or banter. But, really talk. Sit down with family members, friends, colleagues, neighbors and talk about how this makes you feel. Have open and respectful conversations about experiences and concerns. Challenge others viewpoints and present alternatives to patterns of thinking and provide an open and stigma free place to vent, talk, and openly talk about the state of our nation.
- Embrace diversity. As a parent of little ones, we read books where there are pictures with people of all color. We have dolls and toys that reflect people of all races. As adults, research and learn about religions, cultures, and groups of people that are different. When we educate ourselves and make connections, we move away from the “them vs us” to “as a whole” way of thinking.
- When talking about others – be mindful of how you describe them. I hear comments in general conversation a lot referencing such as “The Asian lady down the street” “That black man on the 12th floor” “The white lady who drives the red car.” Be mindful of how you reference others – people are SO MUCH MORE than the color of their skin. Simple reframing of common phrases begins a mind frame shift, a communication shift, and a step in the right direction.
- Speak Up. When you hear a friend, a colleague, a family member, a neighbor, someone in a shopping center making racial comments – SPEAK UP. Don’t giggle and walk away, don’t ignore, don’t look away and hope the person stops. SPEAK UP. “It’s just a joke! I’m only kidding” is not an excuse for racism. When you don’t speak up, you are giving the message that it is okay to make racial comments in front of you. It’s never okay, not in any scenario, in any type of reference. It’s time to stand up for the rights of everyone.
- Increase self-awareness. Get real with yourself. Do you move to the other side of the road if you see someone of color passing? Do you clutch your bag a little tighter when someone is passing by that looks a certain way? Do you have preconceived notions of a person when you hear their name before you have even met them? Do you make assumptions of someone’s education, salary, profession based on the color of their skin? Really dive deep into your thoughts about race and become self-aware of your beliefs.
6. Love your family. Your children listen to the things you say, the way you behave, and the nonverbal cues/actions you give off around others. These actions are what shape their behaviors and actions. I was reading a discussion board regarding race a few weeks ago and someone had posed the question: What has your child done in public that embarrassed you? There were numerous comments about children commenting on weight, hair color, tattoos, skin color, accents, etc. I pondered about whether P, my 3 ½ year old had ever made such a comment. I cannot think of one instance where he has EVER commented on any of the above. I would like to think that it is because he will NEVER hear me say those things. Diversity is a blessing my friends. We are all different. We all bring various viewpoints, stances, opinions, beliefs, values, colors, shapes, and sizes to the table.Starting today – challenge yourself to be better. Be more open minded, be more understanding, be respectful, be kind. We are all fighting the same fight. As parents, we want happiness, love, and success for our children. Let’s just do a better job of making sure our children are all treated equally. Its 2017 people – cut the excuses and just do better.
Oh and D – should you ever come across this little blog of mine. Know this, I will NEVER stop fighting for boys and girls across America. I will hold tight to my Social Work Code of Ethics and fight EVERY SINGLE MOMENT for equality and social justice. I will work to make sure children and families in the poorest neighborhoods of Richmond, in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, and in my own backyard of Chesterfield have access to the same education, programs, and opportunities that my own two boys have. I will never forget you. I will be forever thankful to you for opening my eyes to the sad reality that is racism and poverty in Richmond and having real and open conversations of what it was like growing up in your world. You made an impact on my life far greater than any textbook, class, or lecture ever did. Go forth and conquer. Don’t EVER let anyone tell you that you are less than. The color of your skin is beautiful. I am rooting for you. I will steal a line from one of my favorite books to conclude, The Help: You are smart, you are kind and you are important.
Make today a great day,