In 1985 my five-year-old daughter asked me for the very popular Sleepy Real Baby doll for Christmas. I searched high and low, all over town, and could not find one. Finally, I ended up in a store which had one – a black one – and I grabbed it up. It didn’t matter to me that the doll was black. On Christmas morning, my sweet daughter saw the sleepy baby left unwrapped by Santa under the Christmas tree. “Ooooh, Santa brought me a brown sleepy real baby!” She didn’t care either. But later that day she proudly carried her doll with her to visit family. And I nearly died. Some members of my family found that to be a great opportunity to make jokes. I was furious with them. Honestly, I had no idea they would react like that. Of course, we have all come a long way since the 80’s, but that was a defining moment for me.
In 1992, I had my first black girlfriend. Her name was Jawanna. She and I were both in our 30’s and we both had a few kids. We worked together. We had lunch together. She was funny and I really enjoyed her company. We socialized outside of work.
One day, when we were kidding around, I said to her, “I’m gonna slap you upside your nappy head!” And she suddenly became very quiet. Let me tell you something. My mother said that to me my whole life. I had no idea what it meant. But my friend Jawanna did. And she patiently explained it to me. At first I was a little annoyed at her hypersensitivity. Geez, it was just a saying. Why was she making such a big deal about it? Now, looking back, I know exactly how tone deaf I was… And I probably still am.
Through the years I have caught myself saying or thinking other things which I eventually realized were also racist. Things which had been said to me and around me my whole life. I shall name a few:
“Mighty white of you.”
“Called him everything but a white boy.”
“Living like white people.”
Now I am ashamed as I type those words.
To the people of color who are in my life, I love you. I write this with a broken heart, a broken spirit, and I’m here to tell you, I have been part of the problem. I have said things and thought things that I am not proud of. I can’t promise you that from the moment I realized I was raised a racist to the moment I was called out on it, I turned things around and never looked back. I can’t tell you for sure I never had a misstep or that I am forever “woke.”
It’s only been in the last few years that I have actively tried to do better. I read a book about slave ships several years ago and I cried. I began watching Civil War documentaries. I learned about the Jim Crow laws. I read about the Great Migration. I learned about the Tulsa Massacre. I began to read black authors and study black history. I began to understand that disproportionate black incarceration has been a figurative foot on the neck of black people for a very long time. I learned that the “War on Drugs” launched by my favorite President Ronald Reagan was the cause of many unnecessary and harsh prison sentences for young black men.
Dear friends, I’m going to come out and say it. I know things are out of control right now, but if your narrative is more about riots, looting and destruction than the murder of black people on our streets, you’re missing the point. This isn’t the first, second, third, tenth, or twentieth time. The history of excessive force against black people is SYSTEMIC. False imprisonments of black people is SYSTEMIC. It’s not an equitable system. Everyone doesn’t have the same opportunity. Everyone is not treated the same. Every mother cannot comfortably trust that her son will return unharmed when he leaves her home.
If my story speaks to you, below is a list of resources. Fight against the anti-black narrative that exists in our society, in our heads and in our hearts. Support the black community. Patronize black owned businesses. Do more. Learn More. Be better. And I will strive do the same.
Shackles from the Deep, Michael Cottman
The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson
Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson
I’m Still Here, Austin Channing Brown
Cover photo: Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman