She looked at me without apprehension, without any fear of offending. Her words were easily spoken. “If I was Black, I’d want to have your skin tone,” she said. “Darker Black skin reminds me of an ape’s skin.” A feverish warmth crept over me. An awkward laugh escaped my lips, releasing some of the nervous tension generated by my shame. She was a woman I’d known for years, sung with in the vocal ministry of the large mega church I once belonged to. How can I be okay with this kind of thinking? How could she do it? Say something like that to me? What do I do now? “I can’t believe you just said that…” was all I could manage in the moment, one which transported me back to childhood, a time of low self esteem and a socio/cultural survival instinct that advised silence when it should have been telling me to howl in the face of racist ignorance, even if it was coming from those I loved and admired.
The inauguration of Donald J. Trump is now a thing of the past. But the reality that 52% of White women helped him achieve his goal, has me wrestling with the same questions I did that night with my church friend. How can I be okay with this kind of thinking? How could they do it? What do I do now? Indeed, I have asked those types of questions repeatedly throughout my life.
In Green Bay, WI, a place not especially known for its racial diversity, I was a biracial girl, living with my White mother and White adoptive father with little to no connection to my Black heritage. I was not brave. I just wanted to fit in. And that wasn’t easy because most of the time, I was the only brown person wherever I went. There was no one like me to compare notes with, or commiserate when racism reared it’s ugly head. Thankfully, it is not like this any longer. My world has expanded. I reconnected with my birth father, finally met my brother and sister and their families, and formed meaningful relationships with them. I love them all. But throughout my life, the majority of my close relationships were with White people, mostly women and girls. They represent half of who I am. They have been my friends, family, mentors, and teachers. It is largely their approval and love I most craved throughout my formative years. I have loved them deeply and many of them have truly loved me back. But many of them have been like my church friend, unaware or unfazed by the cognitive dissonance they possess when it comes to matters of race.
My one time ministry friend is not the first White friend to make a racist remark to my face, and believe they were paying me a compliment, nor is she the first White friend to behave in a racially insensitive manner towards me but show no visible signs of moral dilemma in doing so. Once at a family gathering, my own grandmother--who I loved tremendously and who loved the bejesus out of me--made an almost identical statement about dark skinned Black people. In high school, some of my White girlfriends would routinely confess that “I didn’t seem Black to them,” usually in a context which suggested I was considered superior or more acceptable to them because of that fact. The older sister of my best friend in 2nd grade used to make fun of my kinky hair at sleep overs in her house. She’d insist on picking out my curls--despite my shy protests-- until they resembled an afro: “Now you look like the Jackson Five!” she’d exclaim with delight.
In order to remain in relationship with some of these people, I’ve had to forgive and accept that a part of them is blind and their blindness causes me pain. Several weeks after learning the demographic break down of who Trump’s supporters are/were, I find myself, once again, engaged in this same reconciling process. It is a dance I am used to performing. As I struggle to understand the logic behind their votes, I read articles that attempt to explain. A collection of adjectival buzz words and phrases crowd the corners of my mind: disaffected, racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, homophobic. Which of these most accurately describes the people who gave their support to such a man? Jon Stewart-- who I’ve always admired-- said recently in an interview with Charlie Rose that not all those who voted for Trump are a monolith. They are not all racists. They are not all misogynists. I think he’s right. But they are overwhelmingly White. Some of them are college educated, some are not. Some are middle class; many are poor and working class. Something like 81% of them are White Evangelical Christians and 52% of them are White women.
A friend recently asked me why this last group in particular inspires such sadness in me. After all, I have lots of friends, women who happen to be White, who did not vote for the new president. They share my feelings of hurt and betrayal. I’ve been thinking about her question and I’ve realized it’s more than a sense of perceived disloyalty within the ranks of my gender. For me personally, as a racial minority, it comes back to the question of belonging that plagued me as an adolescent, well into my 20’s, and sometimes on occasion, to this day.
President Barack Obama is biracial, like me. He was raised by his White mother and White grandparents, like me. He learned how to talk to, and commune with both sides--Black and White--like me, and yet in the end there were still lots of White people, including--most famously and adamantly--Donald Trump, who sought to remind him that he wasn’t truly “one of them.” According to them, he wasn’t a citizen, and so therefore didn’t belong. How many times have I experienced that feeling of hitting some impassable threshold with White people, where they suddenly need to remind me of who I am to them and how I’m only “allowed” to go so far? Too many to count: I have been that girl who some Christian mom liked to see as a singer on the worship team at her church, but was too Black to date her son. I have been that someone who’s skin color a girlfriend once admired, but only because it wasn’t too Black. I have been the brown girl who belonged...until someone told her she didn’t.
I can accept and believe that not everyone who voted for our new president is a racist. But I think its pretty clear that at worst, he is, and at best, he has no qualms about using racist rhetoric in order to gain power and attention. Either scenario is despicable. The White women who voted for Mr. Trump heard the same words from him that I did, witnessed the same uncouth behavior. They heard him call Mexicans rapists, refer to Black neighborhoods as generally “burning down,” crime infested ghettos. They heard him demonize an entire movement that is justly and understandably concerned about unfair treatment of Black men by the police, they listened to him call for the banishment of an entire group of people because of their religion, and they watched as he harassed our former president--our first Black president--in public, with accusations that he was not a citizen. And yet, they voted for him anyway. I won’t uniformly label all of them racists. But I won’t hide the fact that as a Black and White biracial woman, who has always felt great love for—and to a certain extent—camaraderie with White women, I am deeply, deeply wounded by the choice so many of them made.
Perhaps the complexity and longevity of racism’s hold on this country’s systemic structure and cultural psyche, makes the cognitive dissonance inevitable. It’s like living with the symptoms of a long ago contracted disease you never figured out you have, and so nothing is done to treat it. There is a disconnect somewhere. And it makes coming together that much harder to do.
I take heart in knowing that in spite of how I feel about the election results, there are still many, many people willing to self-reflect and have honest conversations about race and racism in this country. They are able to wade into the bitter waters of its history--as painful and uncomfortable as that can sometimes be--and acknowledge all the ways it has hurt us as a people, as a community of Americans. Yesterday I marched in Chicago with women and men of all races, and from all walks of life who were standing up for the good stuff. I soaked up all the global coverage of worldwide marches with a thirsty soul and felt satisfied. On days like that, I feel hopeful. I feel like I belong.