I remember an incident that happened to me when I was a kid. I couldn’t have been any older than fourteen or fifteen. I was walking along Spring Garden Street in Philadelphia. I’m not quite sure where I was going…but I remember that it was starting to get dark. The weather was warm so I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that it was the early part of summer. As I made my way towards Broad Street, two white men were walking dressed in suits headed in my direction. They were tall…burly, at least by my standards; and as they passed me, one of them said, “Hello nigger.”
Even at fifteen, I was incredulous.
My response was to repeat what he said to make sure I had heard him correctly.
His response was swift.
“That’s what you are, aren’t you?” It was then that I realized that he was drunk. His friend told him to come with him and they continued down Spring Garden Street. Thinking back, I realize that they had just left an event hosted by the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police.
In that moment, I wasn’t sure how to feel. I didn’t know what to say. Up to that point in my life, no white person had ever had the audacity to call me a nigger right to my face; no matter what they secretly thought of me.
This was my first encounter with overt racism but it wouldn’t be my last. But this initial encounter stuck with me. It planted a small seed of bitterness that wouldn’t come to flourish until decades later because you see, I brushed off this man’s denigration of me easily. I brushed it off in the same manner that I would change my socks or brush my teeth and then I went about my business. But it stuck with me that regardless of this man’s intoxication, he felt as if he had the right to denigrate me as a human being without thought to how I felt or even how it would impact me as a child.
I tell you this because this has been the experience of millions of people of color for generations. I say this because it angers me that even in the face of obvious racism, no matter how old we are, people of color are supposed to somehow rise above it. We are supposed to take the high road and not react despite the fact that we have been subjugated into slavery, to later be freed and then be persecuted under Jim Crow laws, to survive that only to have to deal with being forced to live in ghettos, to get pass that only to have to deal with mass incarceration and then finally get to a point in time where we feel like we’ve finally made it…and then you realize that most of the people that look like you are in staff meetings while people that don’t are in board or managerial meetings.
For years, it was expected that I take the high road. I was supposed to overlook or turn the other cheek when white people try to convey messages that echo ideology like I am not good enough. I am not good enough to live in your neighborhoods, I am not good enough to go to your schools, I am not good enough to have the same types of jobs that you have…and yet, I am not supposed to offend you by bringing this to your attention.
And if I express to you how dissatisfied I am with the status quo, I reminded that I am lucky to have a job or even worse, branded a troublemaker.
I realized that I have lived my whole life placating white people…not all of you but enough of you. Even in this statement, I have to make sure that I don’t paint all of you with the same brush of racism despite the fact that most people color have been painted with that same brush ten fold. And it’s not that I am race baiting. I am simply speaking the truth.
We are tired of having white people tell us that there is no such thing as white privilege when clearly there is. We are tired of hearing the subliminal message that our sons and daughters are not as good as yours. But mostly, we are tired of being denied the ability to voice our concerns without being labeled as rebel rousers or troublemakers…people that are going to somehow make things difficult for white people.
"There is simply no need to suppress, denigrate, cheat me or mine, lie and or attempt to take away my right to simply exist simply because you may feel threatened by my presence. You do not have to call the police on my brethren, question me and press me for identification because you may feel like I don’t have the right to occupy the same space as you. J.L. Whitehead"
Now before you tell me that I am a racist for daring to pen commentary like this, I want to make a few points crystal clear to you just so that none of us gets this twisted.
1. My husband is white. He is a wonderful man who is kind and sincere. He knows me, and he gets me. He understands exactly what I am saying because he has seen the discriminatory behavior up close and personal throughout the years that we have been together. I look forward to spending many more years with him because he is the one person that I don’t have to filter my words or emotions.2. Many in my inner circle are white. These people have been with me in my greatest and darkest times. They have celebrated with me, cried with me, lifted me up and been my rock during shaky times. My love for them is not diminished by the actions of a few.3. My feelings are legitimate. They are real. For some white people to try to tell me that it isn’t that bad or to look at all the progress that has been made by people of color is ludicrous. If you have to tell me that it isn’t that bad…trust me, for people of color, it is that bad. You just don’t see it…willingly or unwillingly.4. White supremacy is a very real thing. It is executed in ways that are visible to some, and invisible to others. Whenever you can have white men and women marching with tiki torches and they are shouting, “Jews will not replace us” or “Blood and soil” or “White lives matter” means that the concept of white supremacy exists and is live and well in the United States.5. We have a president that has brought out the very worst in white people. We see it in the news cycle day in and day out. And just because he doesn’t want to take ownership for some of the hateful rhetoric that he espouses doesn’t lessen its effect. More people will die because they are receiving their subliminal marching orders from a man who has labeled himself as a nationalist lending validity to all the racist men and women in this country including groups that identify with that ideology.
As a person of color, I am tired of having to be nice and rise above the rhetoric that clearly diminishes not just myself but my family…people that I’ve grown up with; people that love me unconditionally.
So, what do we do about this? I’m not going to say that all of us should have a coming to Jesus moment where we all come together and sing kumbaya. Instead, white people good and bad need to realize exactly what is going on and address it. The good ones need to use their whiteness to call out prejudicial behaviors and take that step forward to erase the ideology of the color of a mans skin lessening who he is. The bad ones…well, you will never address this. You may want things status quo. You may even fight as you see that the United States is becoming a visibly black and brown place.
But here’s the thing; that doesn’t have anything to do with you or your children. The black and browning of this country will happen whether you like it or not. But more importantly, the black and browning of America is not going to denigrate you in any way. White people will continue to have babies. You will continue to have access to education. You will have healthcare…god willing.
But your race of people will continue to survive.
There is simply no need to suppress, denigrate, cheat me or mine, lie and or attempt to take away my right to simply exist simply because you may feel threatened by my presence. You do not have to call the police on my brethren, question me and press me for identification because you may feel like I don’t have the right to occupy the same space as you.
I will continue to speak out about this until the inevitable change occurs. It will not be easy because some of you will fight this tooth and nail. Just understand that people of color will continue to fight hard for the same rights that you enjoy…and that’s the right to be.
~ J.L. Whitehead