When I was little, and my mother would tell us (my brother and I) stories, she would sometimes preface them by saying “I lived a whole life before the two of you came along!”
And she did. To this day, her stories are some of my favorite childhood memories. Listening to tales of picnics with Granfer Fred and ginger beer, sheep tracks and impending fog, icing sugar wells (that actually worked!) on birthday cakes in Malaya (it was Malaya then ~ when it was colonized and Englishmen took their families over for a different … better? … life).
As I’ve grown, I’ve come to understand her statement in other ways. She was a full person before David and I. A young girl, a teenager, a widow at twenty-two. An emigrant; an English woman in foreign countries. She has memories, visions in her head, so many things that we don’t know anything about.
To be fair, so does my father. He lived lives before marrying my mother and having children. College, being drafted during Vietnam, living in California. I love listening to both of them remember their lives at the beginning.
I was thinking about this on Sunday night, as John and I sat on our deck with friends, watching the flames of our fire pit lick the sky.
I was a thousand people before John. He was a thousand people before me.
I am so happy in my life with him. So content to be us together.
I don’t think about my life before him very much. But when I do, I drown in it a little bit. I’ve been profiled at airports, labeled and addressed by the color of my skin. I’ve been more afraid than I think fear exists in the United States. I can’t erase those experiences. I can’t forget they happened. In the climate of our country right now, they are in my subconscious, restless and unhappy. Bubbling under the surface. Informing my thoughts and my concerns.
I was in South Africa in 2008. I arrived in Johannesburg in January, a single white woman disembarking from a fifteen hour flight. The air was thick and hot, unlike the bitter cold I’d left behind in New York. I was disoriented, apprehensive. I was afraid.
A man the color of tar approached me, his eyes large and dark. He offered to walk me to my connecting flight to Durban. I said yes, and then the fear began spreading from the knot in my stomach to the tips of my fingers. Could I trust this person? I didn’t know, and I felt very targeted. Very exposed. At the end of our interminably long walk from the international terminal to the domestic, he turned expectantly for a tip. I had no South African rand. I fumbled in my wallet, my hands clammy. I pulled out a ten dollar bill. He snatched it gratefully. American money, he told me, was very valuable. And before I could say another word, he was gone.
I had so many moments like that during my six weeks there. So many moments when I felt afraid for no reason. When I felt very white. I even had many moments when I was called white. It became my name.
When we were robbed, I remember the police watching us with boredom in their eyes. Just more white people who had been duped.
I grew up in suburban America. I didn’t really feel racism until I started working in the restaurant business. When kitchen staff said crude things, pushed buttons to try to make you crack. When I learned to develop a thick skin, or I wouldn’t make it.
I still don’t understand racism. I don’t understand why people think something like skin color makes us different. We’re all people. Some of us are good, some of us are bad, some of us are charming and some of us are grumpy. Some of us work hard, some of us rely on others. But racism runs as deep as a knife wound across our country, bleeding the blood of everyone, bleeding hate.
Maybe Colin Kaepernick didn’t fully understand what he started. But he began a conversation. And while it’s a tough one, and it’s one that no one seems to want to have (it’s more about who can speak louder sometimes) ~ we need to at least try. We need to attempt to staunch the flow of racism running through America.
We need to at least try.