The following is the second in a four-part series called “White Silence in Charlotte” in which Emiene Wright asks white Charlotteans about the first time they became aware of racism and how they’ve acted to confront that reality since. Check out more parts of “White Silence in Charlotte” here.
“I am terrified at the moral apathy, the death of the heart, which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I’m human. I base this on their conduct, not on what they say. This means that they have become moral monsters.” – James Baldwin, 1963
No one is born a monster. It takes propaganda from all sides. Family pressures, biased education, media stereotyping, and fearmongering cooperate in impressive, if disastrous, ways to produce the standard-issue American racist. They’re not so much hate-filled as unseeing, only vaguely conscious of their own privilege and its cost at others’ expense. But no one is born a monster. They’re made, with a child’s innocence being the first victim.
I spoke with white Charlotteans who are prominent in their areas of industry, asking one question: When was the first time you witnessed a racist incident and remained silent? Excavating the painful, buried memories of the first time they participated in America’s “other” national pastime left some in tears. Others’ voices shook with the weight of regret. The first cut is the deepest when creating the kind of moral monsters Baldwin spoke about almost 60 years ago. This conversation is needed now in civic, public and private life, to re-sensitize whites to the consequences of racism, not only for Black Americans, but for themselves.
I challenge readers to think back on your own moments where courage or language failed. Confront white silence. Talk about it, educate yourselves, and commit continuously to fighting in your own way for the freedoms we were all promised.
Passing Trauma Along
Hometown: Jacksonville, FL
When I was in first grade, my best friend was a boy named James. We were inseparable at school. One day, James asked if he could have my number. I had just memorized it, so I gave it to him proudly. He called me that night, I guess, because my dad came in my room and started screaming at me. I had no idea why. He kept asking about the boy who called me, then asked what color his skin was. I said brown and he beat my ass. He told me I was only allowed to be friends with white people. I was stunned because I had no idea I’d done anything wrong and was totally unaware race was a thing.
The next day, James asked me for a hug when we were putting our coats in our cubbies … I told him I couldn’t be his friend anymore because his skin was brown. So that may have been his first experience with racism too. We were only 5 years old.
This is one of the worst stories of my life. Now my dad’s married to a Black woman, but I had to traumatize James and my dad had to scar me for life. James and I never talked again. He wouldn’t even look at me after that and I was terrified of my dad, so I didn’t push it. The thing that’s always stuck with me, once I was old enough to realize the situation, is how I definitely traumatized someone who just wanted to be my friend and show me love.
I had a situation where I was silent about racism in sixth grade and I am so fucking ashamed of it I’m not sure I can tell it. My best friend then was a girl named Carrie. We walked to and from school together every day, and we often stopped in at my grandmother’s who lived along the way. Carrie, who was white, started dating this kid named Jamel. Jamel was cool as hell. I loved him. I loved them both. But somehow my family found out Carrie and Jamel were dating and forbade me to be friends with Carrie. So I abruptly stopped talking to Carrie and I didn’t tell her why because I was super ashamed. And she suddenly lost her best friend out of nowhere, with no explanation.
But my family was so worried I’d still sneak and be her friend, my grandmother started driving me to and from school. And then one day while my grandmother was driving me from school, we passed her walking home alone. My grandmother slowed down, rolled down her window and started yelling “N—r lover!” at her, a 12-year-old girl. And I sat in the seat beside her and just cried but I didn’t even try to stand up for my friend.
I ended up running away from my dad’s and being estranged from that side of my family for pretty much my entire teenage and adult life. And about the time I ran away is when I got real radical about calling out bullshit.
Carrie added me on Facebook years ago and the first thing I did was send her a long apology, which she really didn’t even respond to.