On a warm fall evening a few years ago, my son, then in high school, was chilling with a friend. When he was late coming home, I imagined he’d walk in with apologies, talk of having lost track of time and have a doughnut or other snack to share. For other mothers, this would have been a serious cause for concern. They are black; I am white. Being caucasian sets me up for the unfair advantage of white privilege that shields me and my loved ones from danger and deprivation on a daily basis.
I notice that talk of the Black Lives Matter movement seems to set some of my white peers on edge. Some ask, “Well, don’t all lives matter?” Others assert that things are better today. Maybe we’re beyond the need for this conversation. Still, others seem to take it personally: “Well, I am not a racist!”
I don’t get it. I’ve been waiting for this conversation to happen for nearly half a century.
I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, first in blue-collar Beverly, Massachusetts, and then in Cambridge in the shadow of Harvard. Ironically, my first glimpse of racism happened in Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church, where my mother was director of religious education and my father was an organist. I don’t recall how old I was — only that I wore puffy dresses, Mary Janes and ankle socks to church, and I was desperate to lose my two front teeth in time to sing “All I Want For Christmas” in an upcoming school program. Waiting for my parents to finally be done with coffee hour, I heard my Sunday school teacher use a phrase I was unfamiliar with. On the way home, I asked mom what a “damn n——-” was. She told me those were words she never wanted to hear out of my mouth again. I wondered why they were OK for my teacher but decided that was not a good time to pursue the topic.
At least when she was around. You know what they say about forbidden fruit. I eavesdropped. I asked questions of people who were not as affronted by my curiosity. I watched television. I read voraciously. I was years ahead of my peers in comprehension and, having a college professor for a mother and college librarian for a father, I was not limited to age-appropriate material by shushing librarians. When I discovered what I considered my teacher’s hypocrisy — that morning we had sung that Jesus loves all the children — it was the beginning of a faith divorce that culminated years later in my refusing to be confirmed.
Particularly after my family moved to Cambridge, there was more and more news about the Civil Rights movement. A lot of people thought that was in the South. I knew racism also was alive and well up North.
In my grammar school years, the only black child in my class was ostracized. Parents feared that children allowed to go to her house would get cooties or become pregnant by black men who had an insatiable desire to take white virginity. In high school, I was the only girl allowed to sleep over at my best friend’s house. That was when people used words like miscegenation and mongrelization. Her white mother and ebony father got death threats and rocks thrown through their windows.
Beginning in the 1970s, a lot of people seemed to forget or move on. I didn’t. I saw how white flight led to inner city ghettos and separate and decidedly unequal schools more effectively than all of Bull Connor’s and his peers’ brutality. I saw how the Ku Klux Klan went covert rather than dying out. As a school committee member, I studied how black kids are disproportionately more likely to be shunted into special education, suspended or expelled or end up in the school-to-jail pipeline.
It was that evening a few years ago, however, that brought that message most starkly home to me.
I believe the Black Lives Matters movement calls on us to acknowledge our white privilege and its unfairness, to listen to the lived experiences of our darker brothers and sisters and to help them to achieve a world in which people of all shades live in safety, have equal opportunity, are judged by their character, not their color, and can dream big and follow their dreams.
And mothers of curfew-breaking teenage boys don’t have to dread a knock on the door.
Julia Hathaway of Veazie is a writer, community activist and proud mother of three. She is taking up the interests she put on the back burner for parenting and serving on a school committee.