Our Pain Is Not Your Classroom
I stopped talking one Friday afternoon when I was four years old. My mother followed me around all weekend, trying to make sense of what had happened to her loquacious girl with the light in her eyes.
On Sunday evening, the levees broke. Through tears, I explained that my preschool teacher had stood me, the only child of color, on a chair in the center of my classroom. My classmates formed a circle around me and were each allowed to explore my hair. Rough hands, careless hands, curious hands in my braided hair sprinkled with shiny beads. My mother disenrolled me from that school the next day.
I can’t bring myself to watch the murder of George Floyd. But I tried once and saw my father’s face smashed into the asphalt. George Floyd looked nothing like my father. But I saw my dad’s face, clear as day.
Maybe it’s because, when my father was in high school, a white teenager on a motorcycle smashed a bottle against his head and sped away. I see George Floyd. His life slipping away as the government casually kneels on his neck, hands in their pocket. I see Daddy. Bleeding and unconscious on the pavement. I can’t unsee it.
My husband, Carlin, and I love open houses. We stopped at a house with a beautiful view of the mountains a few years ago. The real estate agent showing the house asked us why we were looking at a house so grand.
“This house is for doctors and lawyers,” she said.
“Well, then we’re in the right place. That’s exactly who we are,” we replied, trying to shake off the insult.
“Good one!” she cackled. We left.
My high school boyfriend’s father was senselessly murdered by the police. In his moment of need, he was not kneed, but shot. Eleven times. His name would follow a hashtag if he had been killed today. My friend now has a beautiful family of his own. Yet, he’s navigating life and fatherhood without his father. He should have his father. His siblings, wife, and children deserve their patriarch.
My brother, Jesse, and his friend were stopped by the police not far from their college campus. Without providing a reason for the stop, the officer demanded to search the car for drugs or weapons. The cop couldn’t fathom that these young Black men would become model citizens: the founder of a mentoring organization serving more than 300 men from low-income families and a producer committed to connecting humanity through the art of powerful storytelling.
Maybe their future didn’t matter either way to that officer. Black man equals menace. The only equation he knew.
Once, my mother was admitted to a small hospital with acute pancreatitis. The physician overseeing her care took in her twisted locs and brown skin and concluded that my mother’s condition was due to alcoholism. “If you’ll just admit you’re an alcoholic, we can get you treatment,” the doctor repeated, though my mother had explained several times that she did not drink.
For days, my mother was treated carelessly while she writhed in pain. Finally, another doctor took over her case and promptly determined that her illness was caused by gallstones, not alcohol abuse. Days of pointless suffering, mental and physical. Why don’t they believe us when we say we’re in pain?
Carlin, a surgeon at an esteemed academic medical center, is sometimes mistaken for a patient transporter in the hospital. Long white coat. Surgical scrubs. Full suit. Doesn’t matter. Of course, he gives all of his patients the same top-notch care, whether they resemble his grandmother or come to the clinic dressed in Confederate flags. Doesn’t matter.
“I’m not racist,” said the partner at a prestigious D.C. law firm. I sat across from him in my blue suit, interviewing for a summer associate position. “I remember a Black man ran for office in my little Mississippi town once, and I voted for him. He wouldn’t win. We all knew that. But I voted for him. Because there’s not a drop of racism in me,” he continued. I nodded, hoping we could get back to my interest in health care law.
“Your parents must be so proud of you. You got out and are making something of yourself and can help the rest of the family,” the man grinned. “My success is not surprising. It’s expected,” I wanted to reply. “I come from generations of professionals.” But instead I just stared at the taxidermy head mounts covering his office walls.
“Yeah, we take a handful of Howard Law students like yourself each year. We like to give back.” The partner leaned in his chair, completely relaxed, and then inquired, “So, what does your husband do? Really? And he’s Black, too?” I chose to summer elsewhere.
On Sabbath morning, the Nazis and KKK marched in the small college town we had recently begun to call home. After closing prayer and an announcement that the National Guard had been deployed to the city, our beloved church elder made his way to the Black members huddled together in the back. “If you don’t feel safe going home, you can stay here,” he said solemnly, squeezing my shoulder. Visions of the white men in polo shirts with torches littered my mind. I sat in the pew and cried, watching my white fellow church members walk out into the light of the August sun.
One evening, when Carlin and I were newly married and he was in medical school, we ventured out for a walk. Mere steps from our home, which was practically on the university’s campus, we were blinded by the spotlight atop a police patrol car. Long — and painful — story short, at least four squad cars quickly surrounded us, lights flashing and sirens sounding. The officers ordered us to sit on the curb, hands hovering over their guns. During the nearly hour-long detention, I was separated from Carlin, lied to, and pressured to falsely accuse my husband of harming me.
The officer in charge finally let us go, saying to Carlin, “Okay, doc. I’ll let you two go ’cause if I ever need to come to the emergency room, I don’t want you to recognize me and say, ‘That’s the jerk who was messing with us.’ And, you know, this wasn’t because you all are Black. So we’re cool, right?” For days after the stop, that same officer parked outside of our home. When I would leave for work, he would make eye contact with me from inside his car and then speed away.
My mother visited us one Christmas while we lived in Washington, D.C. Carlin and I were so excited to take her to the Smithsonian. We stopped in front of the picture of “Whipped Peter” in one museum. Silent and reflective. Two white children crowded behind us and surveyed the tragic photograph. The older child said to the younger, scoffingly, “Now, don’t you feel guilty?” So much communicated with so few words. Besides the intense cold, that’s all I remember from that visit.
Three years ago, Carlin and I lost our second baby girl. I was lying in the hospital bed when a woman entered, holding a stuffed bear. She stopped in the doorway, mouth agape. “Are you Jennifer?” she asked. “Yes,” I answered. “Oh, I thought you were white! On the phone you sound white.” This woman was the representative from the procurement organization we were working with to donate our sweet child’s organs.
The woman timidly approached my bed, her demeanor so different from the one presented on the phone when she thought I was white. She offered her condolences and then settled into a seat next to me. I laid before her in my hospital gown, belly full and heart broken. She then began a monologue about her sparse interactions with Black people, race relations, and stereotypes. A barrage of insensitivity and ignorance I could usually brush off. But that day, I was in labor, preparing to deliver my dead daughter.
Sometimes I regret always trying to be polite, respectable, disarming. Someone told me George Floyd called the officer “sir” as he choked the life out of him. Surely this woman from the organ procurement organization could see me as a grieving mother instead of just brown skin.
Before the coronavirus, my daughter attended a small, sweet Montessori preschool. One afternoon, she came home silent. I wondered what happened to my loquacious girl with the light in her eyes.
It took me a few hours of prodding, but that night she whispered to me that a “friend” refused to hold her hand that day because she didn’t want my daughter’s “brown” to rub off on her. A similar incident occurred the week the quarantine started. I wish I could quarantine my girls forever. I wish I didn’t have to.
Though this seems like a record of wrongs, I assure you my heart is full of love. And hope. The injustice in our country is as old as its founding, but I have seen new things. Scales beginning to fall from eyes. Many have asked what they can do to fight racism. Here are some ideas.
First, learn about the the construction of “race” and the history and impact of racism in our country. Pace yourself, but start somewhere — except with your Black neighbors, co-workers, or acquaintances. Our pain is not your classroom. It’s a wake-up call. We share our experience to bring awareness, in hopes that you will inundate yourself with the true history of the United States of America and do the work required to dismantle racism — even when you find it in your own heart. When it gets uncomfortable, persist. The refiner’s fire is painful, but it will create change.
And then, talk to your children. Talk to your children. Please talk to your children. Teach them to think critically. Analyze the words used to describe groups of people. Compare the outcomes of identical situations involving people of different ethnicities. Look for instances of injustice and name them. Listen to podcasts. Watch documentaries. Pose questions that your children haven’t yet thought to ask. Why are there no Black families in our neighborhood? Why are our churches segregated? Why are people protesting? Read books featuring protagonists of color with your kids. Not just books about our struggle for equality, but also books about Black people just being people. It’s never too early to start the conversation. Maybe then my granddaughter won’t come home from preschool speechless.
Are you awake? Good. Now, go to class.