By Kara L. Higgins
My first Cabbage Patch doll was a little boy with dark, chocolate skin, and the first boy I kissed was a sweet, nerdy Black kid. My folks were both in education, voted Democrat, and believed that their actions spoke louder than words. I was the blue-eyed, blonde-haired, middle class teachers’ kid living in the suburban midwest; I think I must have fallen into that category of white people who think they aren’t racist because they have Black baby dolls and boyfriends. Writing that makes it cringeworthy, but I know that there are countless white people in the world who fall into that same category, believing themselves to be woke, yet practicing systemic racism or arguing for “color-blindness”.
In college, I always preferred to sit with the girls in my nursing class who were African-American. I loved their transparency, and I could relate to their general skepticism toward most of our classmates. We were in a private, Jesuit University where many of the kids attending were there because their parents were alums. I was on a full scholarship, and I couldn’t relate to the other white girls who got excited about the newest J. Crew catalog and the next frat party. The African-American nursing students’ expressions glazed over, just like mine, when the conversation turned to cotillions or couture.
Although my classmates always included me, although they saw me through some milestones, there always was this unspoken barrier. No matter how much listening I did, and I did a lot more listening than talking, I still couldn’t quite fit in. I know now, 20 plus years later, that of course, I could never fully connect on a heart level. They were inner city girls from St. Louis, and I was the white girl. Maybe their first token white friend? It always made me sad that none of them came to my wedding, even my dear friend whom I had asked to read a scripture. I understand now that it must have been uncomfortable for them, and that our friendship wasn't as equally special as I believed that it was at the time. Yet even as a bright-eyed 22-year-old, I think I was aware then that there was still an invisible line keeping us from being true blue friends.
Fast forward 20 years, and I am mothering five kids. Two of my amazing children happen to be differing shades of Black. And as my sweet boys are turning into young men, America is killing its Black boys. Trayvon Martin’s case was the first to scare me. Initially, I didn’t recognize my own emotions; I believed I was relating to Trayvon’s mom as one mom to another. Then Eric Garner died, and as my husband and I watched in horror, I started to notice that a lot of people around us weren’t watching. The protests in Ferguson had both of us up late at night, talking about it together because the people, the white people, around us just sort of tuned us out when we wanted to talk about the horror of these deaths. I know that we both felt like the world was upturned. I know we felt betrayed that so many people didn’t seem to care about these senseless deaths. We began to realize that what was changing was us, not the world. My hubby began following Black artists, politicians, and media on Twitter. I began unfriending a lot of middle aged “Evangelicals.” Things were shifting.
Then, Philando Castile died. That was it. I was almost unable to function because of my grief and anger. I typed #blm and that unleashed the hate. Men in our church reprimanded me; one even using intimidation and threats. We were increasingly convinced that this racism was our problem too, not just because we were raising Black boys but because we are all in this together. But it sure seemed like we were alone as white people feeling this way.
In our community, a church hosted a prayer event, inviting multiple churches, faith-based organizations, and even law enforcement. Our whole family attended that night, and as we held hands and prayed for justice, one pastor challenged us to exchange phone numbers and share a meal with someone we had met that night. My little prayer group within the event was an ideal melting pot: our mixed transracial family, a Latino family, and a Black family. The Black woman, Candi, and I immediately took charge of the challenge and planned for a picnic the next month. Amazingly, everyone in our prayer circle showed up for that first dinner. We spoke honestly about what was going on in America, and our common thread was that we all were desiring to approach the issue of race as a sin problem. Our common thread was that we saw each other as family. And that changed everything.
Shortly after our first picnic, my family decided to host a dinner for our prayer group. However, the momentum had seemed to fizzle out, and our group dwindled down to the Black family and us. Again, we broke bread together, and our conversation was real. I won’t ever forget when Candi told me that her whole married life, she never let her husband go run out for milk after dark because she feared he could be pulled over and killed. That was pivotal. Her whole life, she had a fear that I was now experiencing. It was new and overwhelming to me, and here my friend was sharing with me that that same fear was the norm for her. We grieved over that. I needed to tell her I was sorry that I never knew the depths of racism in America. It was important for all of us that we could apologize, even though my husband and I were never directly racist, we were a part of a system of oppression, and our ignorance to it was permission for it to flourish. Candi and her husband were gracious toward us and continue to be. Their honesty and willingness to be real and vulnerable paved the way toward a genuine friendship. My heart and my convictions grew that night in my dining room.
After that dinner, Candi and I started talking mom stuff more. I deliver babies and take care of mamas for a living, and she needed some insight on both. Candi gave me a chance to be her real friend. I know that in her life, she has had experiences that have made her cautious to tell her relatives when she has white friends. I respect that, and I know I can’t ever understand it. It matters even more to me than it could have when I was in college, trying to fit in with my classmates. We continued to talk and text and share meals. After her son was born, I was able to care for and love her when other women didn’t “get it.” Now, we have a standing pedicure date every 6 weeks. The first time we went together, the ladies awkwardly asked us how we became friends, and I laughed at their attempt to be politically correct. “Do you mean because she’s Black and I am White? Or because she is younger and I am older? We actually prayed together once...” In the end, I think we both agreed it was a God thing that connected us.