Picture this: When I was young, maybe 5- or 6-years-old, I was seated at a restaurant with my mom and younger brother, happily scarfing down my favorite meal-of-the-moment. Mid-way through lunch in suburbia, an extremely tall black man walked in. I can still see him…his stature, his smile. He just effortlessly owned the place. I looked at him for a moment, smiled, and went back to eating.
My brother, who was 2- or 3-years-old at the time, was in awe. He said, in his booming toddler voice, “Mommy, that man is really tall!” After a long, pensive pause, he added, “And he’s black, too!”
Upset, I felt compelled to correct my innocent brother right there on the spot. I was an attention-seeking big mouth (not sure I have changed much) who, thankfully, was taught to judge people on the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
“Oh, Adam,” I said, standing, with my hands on my hips, demanding the same attention the man didn’t ask for when he entered the establishment, “We all have the same hearts, the same noses, the same eyes, the same fingers, the same feet, the same ears, the same [insert body part here].” I went on and on and on, naming every single body part I could think of, down to eyelashes. In hindsight, I made a ridiculous spectacle of a comment with no malice behind it, but I remember feeling proud I knew something my brother didn’t know: Skin color shouldn’t matter.
The man acknowledged me and gave my mom an appreciative glance that’s seared into my brain. He knew she taught me right from wrong.
My mom, may she rest in peace, was sensitive about racial issues, not because she had any idea of what it’s like to be black in America, but because she had an idea of what it’s like to be white in America. One of the most horrifying moments of her life came when she realized her bosses at a North Carolina law firm hosted covert KKK meetings in the office after hours. She did not stay at that job. She would not, could not be complacent, as it was counterintuitive to who she was, what she stood for, what she wanted for her future. She never experienced racial segregation, intolerance, strife…but she was embarrassed by the despicable actions of white people where she lived and worked in the ’60s. And she did something about it.
My mom told us our experience on this earth will be vastly different from a black person’s, based solely on genetics. It broke her heart to share this information, but she wanted to enlighten us so we would be voices for change. She had many difficult discussions with us to ensure we understood racism as best we could from our vantage point…but she was special. Many people don’t have a mom like that.
Even today, I am sure at least one white person would stare at the black man in the same restaurant, just like my brother did. Except that person would be an adult who should know better; not an innocent, inquisitive child. It’s sad, but it’s reality. We are not colorblind; we are not all one race. I wish we were, but we are not. Together, we need to get there.
Today, I am reminded of my mom’s lessons, her legacy. She wasn’t on the front lines of the civil rights movement, but she acknowledged the issue and did her part to do better. While I can’t understand what it’s like to be black, I can acknowledge this horrific, shameful, systemic issue and do my part to do better. I encourage you to do the same.