I played basketball in middle school and high school, and we played this one team twice a year. One of their players was big-eyed, spoke loudly, and had an intensity about her that was fierce. I’ll say it again, fierce. Once in middle school, down by the basket, she blasted into my chest, knocked me flat on my back, and drew the foul to boot. Three-point play.
I remember how my chest tightened as I staggered, my breath thrust out of me and my lungs left gasping. I hurt. My chest hurt. We’ll say the girl’s name was Stephanie. My teammate, Taylor, always used to say how much she loved Stephanie. “She’s hilarious!” she said.
I begged to differ. Stephanie was like a beast.
It wasn’t the fact that she was black. It was her bravado; the boisterous quality of her speech, her chest-first sprint down the court, the sheer bigness of her—in more than just her stature. She wasn’t as tall as me, no; she might have been five feet five at the time compared to my six feet. She was wicked good, though—one of the best basketball players I remember ever playing against. We used to see each other at camps in the summertime, where very few campers were black.
I grew up in a small community that had little to no diversity. I’d have called the Amish in the next county east the most “exotic” people group in my region. But there you have it: I grew up mostly sheltered from the larger world—the world that’s multicolored, multilingual, and multicultural. My home county lacked vibrancy.
But here I am, now—writing these words as I’m stuck between two people on an airplane from Portland, Maine, to Charlotte, North Carolina—and all my thoughts are about how I have no right in the world to write an article about becoming less racist. Wait. Less racist? I must be referring to our country at this moment—because how many times have I heard the slur “racist” spoken against our new president? The precedent he seems to be setting is not one I’d want any future children of mine to emulate.
It scares me, however, to think that simply because I have not taken lengths to stand up against racism, I might have attitudes and ideas that, unknowingly, are racist. What if I live into this thing that is white supremacy?
I do accept all the benefits of being in the majority. I don’t often stand up for equality between races. Ugh. Who am I? A sheltered, semi-content, blissfully ignorant white woman?
Back in my middle school glory days (which were not so glorious), I inwardly despised playing black-girl basketball teams. My team was, but for one of us, white. We had height, and some bulk, but we did not have the power I soon came to attribute to the strength of African American basketball players. I didn’t think, Oh, they just want to win more. Instead, I thought, They’re just black. Wayne High School. Elmhurst. South Side. These schools represented force. And I was afraid. But was I being or acting racist?
I don’t know. I hope not. I think I was honestly coming from a place where what I knew of my world was that it was, simply, my world. As an adolescent, I didn’t go around thinking I needed to diversify my world—that I needed to see some new cultures, meet some people who don’t look like me. No, I was just living! Focused on things like puberty and boys, and being wanted and accepted. I was distracted from notions of race. And I wonder how much the attitudes we accept and adopt in our adolescence are attitudes we keep for posterity; or until we meet people or have experiences that irreparably break them.
We see through the lenses provided for us by our communities. We feel with our experiences. We carry emotional and physical baggage. Our job, as adults, as people who are able to meet people different from us, is to do just that: make an effort to understand race and meet people who may not act or look like us.
Lately, I try to acknowledge the blessings and opportunities I have because of my white skin. I realize how much responsibility I have to, first of all, see people—to recognize everyone for who they are in God’s sight. And then, if I’m allowed the chance, to look past the outward appearance, straight to the heart. Perhaps the way to tackle racism is to calmly acknowledge our differences and move forward, looking for similarities that might bind us instead of build walls.