I didn’t understand. And I still don’t. I never will. I try. And I am learning to see things from a different perspective. But I can’t fully understand because my experiences are different. And that breaks my heart.
As a white female raised in Southern Virginia, born to parents who lived through the integration of schools, I grew up in a segregated community. Sure, schools were integrated, but life wasn’t. My Black friends didn’t come to my sleepovers. We didn’t go to church together. And I certainly wasn’t supposed to grow up and marry a Black man. But I did. And I was warned that having an interracial relationship would be hard. And I was warned that having non-white children would be hard. But I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand how hard it would be, and I didn’t understand why it would be hard.
I was told it would be hard to date, and eventually marry, a Black man and I thought the hard part was what people would say to and about me. I thought it was about the dirty looks I would get in public. I thought the hard part would be separating from my “friends” and family who didn’t support our relationship. And all of those things happened, and it was hard. I remember telling Rodney how uncomfortable I was as people stared at me when we were in a mall in Baltimore one time. I didn’t attend events like family member graduations and holiday gatherings because even though I was invited, Rodney wasn’t welcome, and we come as a pair. One time, a family member told me to “get him off my property before I shoot him.” That was the first time I saw my husband cry. And he told me he was crying, not because that hurt his feelings, but because he was so angry that someone who mattered to me would hurt me that way. He hurt because I was hurting. I thought I was being strong by standing by him, but he was the one showing strength. He accepted all the extra hate and hurt just to be with me. And he loved me so much that he didn’t even tell me how ignorant I was to my privilege. I didn’t understand.
I remember the first time during our relationship when he was stopped and questioned without cause. He was on our college’s baseball team, which played and practiced in the city park near campus. Often they were there late at night. One night, after a late practice, he and the other Black players were stopped by the police on their way out of the park to get home. They were questioned as to why they were in the park, where they were coming from (despite their practice uniforms, sweat, and field dirt), and where they were going. They were given the third degree. And none of their white teammates were stopped. When he told me about it, I kept asking, “But why did they stop you? What were you doing that made them stop you?” That was the first time I heard the phrase “driving while Black.” I didn’t realize how I was victim-blaming. And he loved me so much that he didn’t even tell me how ignorant I was to my privilege. I didn’t understand.
When we got married and bought our first house, we moved to a quaint little town in the Shenandoah Valley. I thought it was the perfect place for us to live and raise our family. Rodney liked it there, too, but I think he was happy because I was happy. We had lived there for 6 months before I looked around a restaurant at dinner one night and realized he was the only Black person. I had found “our perfect home” in a town that was 83% white and only 2% Black. And it took me 6 months to even notice. When we got in the car, I mentioned it to him. His response was, “Yeah, baby. You just noticed that?” But he loves me so much that he didn’t even tell me how ignorant I was to my privilege. I didn’t understand.
In the summer of 2016, when the Black Lives Matter movement led a march in Memphis and blocked the I-40 bridge, I complained about how inconvenient the back-up of traffic was. When peaceful protests turned into riots, violence, and destruction, I fussed that those actions were perpetuating stereotypes and making things worse instead of better. I argued that “all lives matter.” I asked Rodney what I was supposed to do to show my support for him, my son, my family and friends, and he helped me explore some of the feelings I had and answered my questions, and I called my mother-in-law to seek her wise counsel on the matter. They tried to help educate me. But they love me so much that they didn’t even tell me how ignorant I was to my privilege. I didn’t understand.
But that was when I first realized that I wasn’t understanding something. I realized that I was supposed to be doing something because all of this wasn’t right. And I was very embarrassed by the unintentional hurt that my ignorance has surely caused many people over the years and how long it had taken me to start wanting to truly understand. Maybe it’s because by this point I was the mother of an incredible one-year-old little boy and I was beginning to try to see the world through his eyes. And suddenly, this world that had never really seemed that bad to me was a horrible, scary place. But I still didn’t know what to do. I still proudly professed that I was “colorblind.” But that’s not right. We should acknowledge and embrace the diversity of our communities. Our uniqueness is what makes each of us beautiful and special. I don’t want to devalue that. When I look at my children, I see my amazing son and radiant daughter and celebrate every bit of what makes them who they are, including their skin color. And when I look at them, I am also aware of how different their life experiences will be from mine. And because I love them so much, Rodney, RT, and Lily, I am becoming more and more aware of how ignorant I have been to my privilege. And I am trying to understand.
What I now understand is that Rodney and my mother-in-law, friends who I hurt, strangers who I hurt – they didn’t call me out on my ignorance because they could tell that my privilege had also made me too weak to actually hear the truth, so they just let me be rather than upset me. Rodney has told me so many times that there are some things he’s just going to have to teach our son because RT will have to learn to be strong in a way that I can never understand. He has to be strong enough to endure the challenges ahead, overcome the born disadvantage of having dark skin, do twice as much as his white peers to succeed, and try not to be too intimidating along the way lest he bruise the fragile egos of the privileged majority, because that could become a life-threatening situation.
What I now understand is that the hard part of being the white wife to a Black man and mother to two Black children is that I can’t fix this world for them. I can’t make others see them the way I see them. I can’t share with them the privilege that I have. I can’t keep them safe. And that terrifies me. That breaks my heart. That makes me cry sometimes so hard that I can’t breathe. And that’s still nothing compared to the pain they have and will endure.
What I now understand is that I do see color and I must consciously choose to reshape any ingrained thoughts or biases that pop up. Black lives matter. Not more than white lives. But white lives have always mattered. And sadly, only 5 generations ago, there were literally laws that said Black lives didn’t matter. But they do. My husband’s life matters. My son’s life matters. My daughter’s life matters. And so does the life of every other POC. They matter.
And we all need to understand that. I love them so much that I am owning how ignorant I have been to my privilege. I apologize to my family, my friends, and POC everywhere for my ignorance. I didn’t understand. I still don’t understand. I can never fully understand. But I am going to try to understand, and I am going to fight for change because you do matter and you deserve better.
About the Author
Heather is a Virginia native who was transplanted to the Mid-South in 2010 and now lives in Olive Branch. She met her husband, Rodney, her freshman year of college and they married in 2006. She is a mom of two – RT (June 2015) and Lily (December 2017) – and is known to be a helicopter mom and a little bit crunchy. She is a Christian, a travel agent, and a business coach. Heather has a passion for exploring the world and her family particularity enjoys cruising and anything Disney. You can learn about Heather’s travel business, Quality Time Adventures, on Facebook. She loves helping others succeed and is a natural connector and cheerleader.