Reflections on Junteenth (from a privileged white woman trying to be more woke)
A few weeks ago I went to a workshop for white parents on how to raise anti-racist kids. It was given by two parents who work in this field —Tanya Friedman and Suzy Meyers Jackson—and sponsored by the Social Action Committee of my children’s Brooklyn public school, PS 261, where social justice, anti-racism, equity and inclusion are part of our school’s mission and core values. It is a unique and special place and it is these values that have kept my kids at the school even when I have been less than impressed with the rigor of academics.
After some work and discussions, the moderators posed several questions for us to role play that might come from our kids: “Why are all the kids who get in trouble black?” “Why are all your friends white?” And more like this. All challenging questions that made us feel uncomfortable. Part of the process. We worked on the answers. I took the question that cut at my heart the most. “Why are all your friends white?” I felt guilt, shame, truth.
A parent in the group played the child and I the parent. I made an attempt at an answer, using the rubric they gave us where we acknowledged the child’s question, validated the feeling and observation, and explored it with them. “That’s true, you are right. I have to make more of an effort. Our friends do tend to be white. My black and brown friends from growing up have moved away. And my friends from my grownup life are mostly white. Let’s think about why that is.” Perhaps there didn’t need to be an answer, but an acknowledgement, deep inquiry and thinking, and a desire to reflect on why this was, together with our kids.
I grew up in Queens and went to a very progressive diverse school in Jamaica called Highland that unfortunately closed in 1985. It was a beautiful place that brought together kids of all colors, religions, and backgrounds. I didn't realize at the time how unique it was, but as a parent, looking back at my time at Highland, I see it very clearly.
My friends, good friends some of whom I still have today, were black, brown, muslim, jewish. We were on the cheerleaders together, played sports together, and went bowling together every week. We played together, hung out together, ate lunch together, went to each other’s homes, and met each other's families.
When I went to college and grad school though, all that changed. My classmates were white. At my job as a lawyer in a corporate firm in the early 90s, all white. At the federal court where I clerked, all white. At the gym I went to on Park Avenue South, all white. At the restaurants I ended up managing before I became a journalist, all white. And my friendships became all white. I have acquaintances from 261 who are black, women and men I talk to on the playground, or meet for morning coffee. But we don’t go out for dinner, I haven’t had them over. Why is that?
There’s more. Why is it that I only recently learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre, or the one at Rosewood, or the meaning of today, Juneteenth, the anniversary of the “end” of slavery 155 years ago in 1865, two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation? I went to Highland, a diverse school. But my education was still white washed.
Worse still, despite my “liberal” upbringing and schooling, it has only been in the past decade or so that I have realized just how bad things are for black people in this country. Black people are being killed in their living rooms, in their back yards, in their cars, on the sidewalks, in every city in America. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Tayler, Ahmed Aubrey, and countless more from Rodney King to Amadou Diallo, back to Emmett Till, and to the first slaves shipped here to the shores of this country in 1619, have finally set the nation on fire to pay attention and face a history of shameful systemic, brutal, and pandemic viral racism in every aspect of the history of this country—education, housing, healthcare, policing, employment, and our very basic system of capitalism, built on the backs of slaves.
We have work to do, all of us white people, both personally, and as a nation, that is more than abundantly clear. I am no expert, but I am looking inward, looking outward and doing a lot more reading and thinking and protesting than ever before. Is that enough? If it were just me, no, but it’s not just me, it’s a movement and I believe it is going to change the future. Am I naive? Maybe. Am I an optimist? Definitely. Will things change? I don’t know. But they damn well need to.
In another Anti-Racist workshop I took a few years ago, this one for both black and white families, we were going around the room, a time of listening for white people to hear their black friends share their stories of racist experiences. There were many, from black mothers who had to reprimand their black boys to behave on the subway, whereas white mothers could let her boys run wild without fear of judgement or interference. Stories of how white mothers had to teach their kids how to interact with police, how to dress at night (no hoodies).
The stress of being black started to come into focus. It wasn’t just the big picture racism, being passed over for a job, or given a loan at a higher interest rate, going to a crappier public school than kids in the better zip code, or having your land taken by the government. It was the day to day life of being black, of bird watching, coffee fetching, standing in line, skittles holding, shopping, and more, a death by a thousand cuts, that was also making its mark on these lives (and it is this stress and deep-rooted anxiety that leads to disparate health outcomes in black communities).
When we got to my friend, I’ll call her D, she shared a story that has stayed with me. She had ridden her bike to school for an evening PTA meeting. It was winter and the days were short so when she came out to ride home, it was dark. She was fiddling with her lock, having trouble with it in the dark, when two white men walked by and passed her, then stopped, and turned back. Mind you this is in Boerum Hill Brooklyn. Instead of offering to help her, they began making suspicious statements. “What are you doing there?” Is that your bike? If it’s your bike, why are you having so much trouble. She felt scared, attacked, shame, fury, all of it. “It’s my bike,” she said as the lock opened. She got on and raced away as fast as she could.
D is my friend. We get coffee together and vent about how moody our girls are at just 10 years old. We are on the same committees at school. This is my friend. I felt angry and enraged and shocked. How could this be happening? And yet how could I be shocked, this was nothing new. This was the way it was for black people every day.
History repeats itself; it is up to us to change history.
Happy Juneteenth to all.