I have a very specific memory from late August 2000. My younger son and I were going to a supermarket.
We had just brought my older son, who is black, to his first day of preschool. I lowered my younger son into the seat of the grocery cart and I felt a sense of relief and lightness. There we were – a white mother and her white son. We could go into any store and be normal customers.
It wasn’t going to be like the other times. I wasn’t going to have to create a scene because nobody would wait on me. I wouldn’t have to complain to the store owner that others were taken care of ahead of me. I could buy whatever I went into the store to purchase, and life would be easy.
Twenty-five percent of my family is black, and I’m exhausted from racism.
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I should say I am exhausted from the second part of racism. The first part is the store clerk ignoring you or leaving the restaurant, after several complaints, when you realize they are never bringing you your food.
The second part is when your white friend says, “Maybe they thought you were still looking around,” or “maybe they just forgot to put your order in.”
Experiencing racism tires you out. Defending that you are experiencing racism feels as though you are being gaslighted.
I am fortunate in that I get a break from racism. I get to be white all day long, everywhere I go. Only when my son is with me am I reminded of its existence. When I am by myself or with my white son, there are no hassles.
Sometimes I forget we are different but then the stares of strangers remind me. There is nothing like being on the receiving end of a hateful look. When I was younger, I just moved away from the person. Now, I could win a staring contest with anybody.
During fall break, my son and I were in Belk and this older gentleman continued to stare at us. I walked to ten inches from his face and stared back. I think my son was afraid his mom was going to get into a fight with a senior citizen. He took me by the arm and said, “Let’s look over here.” I walked away, staring back at the hateful old man.
I would not have believed this years ago, when we adopted our sons. I was one of those people who believed the civil rights era had done its job. Everyone was equal. Racism was dead. I also said things like, “I don’t think that was racism,” to my friends who were black
When it doesn’t happen to you and someone relates one incident, well, it’s easy to dismiss it.
My little law abiding, tax paying, hardworking, 25 percent black family has had issues with police, issues with friends and issues with schools. Tell me if your white family can relate:
▪ Has your all-white family had an issue with your teenage son being surrounded by three police cars falsely accusing him of stealing?
▪ Has your all-white family heard someone sneer about a girl dating someone who looked like your so – the way I have heard, “y’know she’s dating a black guy?”
▪ Did your white teenager go to more than 30 businesses trying to get a part-time job, until you finally intervened and asked a friend to hire him?
▪ Has your white family listened to teachers say, “so you really think he should be getting all A’s and B’s?” Have you heard them say, “You think a four-year college is a realistic expectation?” (By the way, he got all A’s and B’s except for two math classes and he is enrolled in a four year college.)
▪ Has your white child been denied entry into an honors class? When my son was finally allowed into honors classes he got those aforementioned A’s and B’s.
These are just a few examples. There are daily occurrences of racism in the lives of every black person you know. I have already called my son’s university equity office about a racist incident in his dorm.
I use my white sense of entitlement to address racism every time I see it rear its ugly head. I can do that because I am not completely exhausted from its constant presence.
I don’t know that I would have the energy to fight the schools, call and complain to a neighboring town’s police chief and mayor, and address the daily slights my family has experienced if I didn’t get my daily reprieve as a white person.
Being a black person in our society is a challenge. Telling a black person they are not experiencing racism adds to that challenge.
If we really want to address racism we have to begin by accepting its pervasive existence – in our neighborhoods, our schools, our businesses and our kitchen tables.
Mary Carey lives in Chapel Hill with her husband, two sons, and two dogs. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @maryhelenecarey