“Imma,” she says in her ‘I’m going to tell you something incredibly insightful now so you better stop what you’re doing and focus and make sure your phone is on hand to record this’ voice, so naturally, I turn.
“I know you’re not going to believe this, so I’m telling you now you have to trust me that it’s true.”
I nod and put the phone down. I’m pretty sure this is going to be one of those ‘let me tell you what happened on the way home from school’ stories, maybe a bit Mulberry Street-isque, but nothing I can’t breeze through on this typical, absolutely ordinary day.
“My friend told me white people are better than black people.”
I know she’s looking at me, expecting some sort of response…and I know she thinks this an important conversation based on how she prefaced it…but I am stuck with her words swarming through my mind because for some reason…I AM NOT PREPARED.
My first clear understanding of how white people who aren’t racist can sometimes get stuck staring down the barrel of racism came from an incident involving my little sister, my mother and the neighbor one lovely afternoon on our front stoop.
The neighborly conversation was interrupted by my sister’s investigative reporting on the color of skin.
“Mommy,” she said in all her innocent glory as she scrutinized the neighbor, “Why is her skin brown?”
My mother froze.
There was only a slight pause before the neighbor very gently squeezed my mother’s hand and took over.
She said something or other about the color of blood and how it’s all the same on the inside.
I don’t really remember that.
But I can still feel that pause.
And here I am in that same damn pause.
I must have gasped because she’s assuring me that she knows…but like, really knows, that this girl is wrong.
She knows that people are people and we are all part of the human race.
She knows that what makes you better are your actions and what makes you above are your reactions.
She was really asking me why people are racists…more importantly, why a fellow second grader who is her friend, is a racist, and I have so many answers and all of them are sort of my fault because I have not done enough to fight it.
I am not a racist, yet I hear racist conversation in the park and don’t respond loudly enough.
I am not a racist, yet I live in a community where the ethnic diversity is mind-boggling nonexistent.
I am not a racist, yet my city segregates residents and calls it ‘absorption’.
I am not a racist, yet I say nothing when my son’s ganennet mixes up the names of the children of Ethiopian descent and laughs it off because she “can’t tell them apart”.
Oh, I cringe.
I cringe when I hear complaints that “Ethiopians” are hanging out in the park and breaking ‘our’ public benches.
I cringe when my son asks if the street cleaner who greets us every morning lives where all the brown people live.
I cringe when my daughter and her friends refer to children born in Israeli hospitals to immigrant parents, (just as she was), as Ethiopians.
And I cringe when I find myself pausing that long, uncomfortable pause.
I don’t want to cringe.
I want to shout.
For some reason, I haven’t had the urgent need to shout because I somehow thought this was not my problem because I am not a racist.
I have the ‘right’ color skin so I never really felt racism.
I never had to fight for the right to be treated as just another human being.
I need to start fighting and it needs to start with that pause.
Because what I remember most about that day when my neighbor stood up for herself was that it felt like she was defending something.
The color of skin is not something we need to defend.
The answer to a little girl’s question should not have so much weighing on it.
And I will start right now.
For the world we all share.