“Don’t be a statistic.”
Over the past 18 years, I’ve tried to imagine a circumstance when such a statement might be inspirational. Taken without context, the best I can come up with is that it’s a puzzling thing to say. Everyone is a statistic in some way or another, aren’t they? It’s like saying something is a fraction of the size of something else.
But to a 10-year-old impressionable girl who believes she’s receiving some significant advice from a loving uncle, the guidance is pretty questionable. Throw in the details that she’s black and he’s white, and well, it becomes a therapist’s jackpot.
Full disclosure: this story is about me.
I know, I know. The last time I wrote about race, it was to say that I don’t actually talk about it. Given that the strain of race relations in this country has only worsened since then, though, and given that many of my nearest and dearest do ask about my point of view, I’ve decided to answer in the only way I know how. By telling a piece of my story.
It’s important to me that I clarify that mine is not a story of neglect and systematic abuse, however. It’s not another example of how White America is literally and/or violently holding us back.
I’m the first to acknowledge that I’ve been quite privileged throughout my life, which is part of the reason I’ve avoided talking about race to begin with; the last thing I want to do is detract from this conversation. The degree to which gruesome, overt and sinister racism still exists in this country is baffling; I truly don’t understand how some people can insist racism is over. And it’s painful for me that some of those people might be my own family members.
That’s what my story is about. Ignorance. It’s personal, and it’s raw and it’s a very real struggle.
I’m downright terrified to talk about it, to write about it, not because of how society might judge me, but because of how my own family members will understand me. Or misunderstand me.
Case in point: When my uncle cornered me on the stairwell in my grandparents’ home during a Hanukkah party all those years ago (to set the scene, I was leaping down the steps two at a time in my favorite purple dress, on my way to a fierce game of Dreidel, when out of nowhere…), he did not understand the implications of his words. Nor did I, but they felt important. I promised him I wouldn’t become a statistic.
It wasn’t until 10 years later that I began to understand what he meant: As the daughter of a single mother, as the product of an affair between a white woman and a black man, as the only colored person in my family, everyone was watching me.
Maybe he thought he was just being a father figure to me. After all, he had daughters – my closest childhood friends – and I was with them so often, perhaps to a certain degree he cared for me like his own?
Regardless, what I’ve come to realize is that motive does not excuse offense.
And while I’m now a grown woman who has faced her fair share of trials, those implied risks that I so eagerly yet unknowingly agreed to avoid have been the least of my worries.
I’m not a high school dropout. I’m not a teenage mother. I don’t have a criminal record.
I have a master’s degree. I’ve traveled the world. I am healthy and happy.
But you know what else? I have been raped. By a white man. (Not that his race should matter.) And since, statistically, it’s estimated nearly 1 in 5 women have been raped, I’d really like to know why that’s not the conversation we’re having with our young daughters? I guess that’s an entirely separate blog…
So, some might read this and think that I was raised in an ignorant, oppressive and racist environment. Of course my gut reaction is to defend my family – those who know me know that my love and appreciation for them is indisputable – but there is sadly a degree of truth there. More important, though, is the fact that those sometimes oppressively ignorant racists were always my champions.
Yes, it’s somewhat uncanny that people who spew racial epithets or make light of prejudicial stereotypes might in their very next breath call out the reigning injustices against the Jewish people and then lecture me on my heritage, all the while seemingly oblivious to my skin color, but that’s the weird, beautiful mess that is my family.
The truth is, I doubt some of them would even be able to recall a racist thought or opinion they’ve had, even if I itemized each of the instances that their words have caused me pain. For better or for worse, selective memory abounds.
There’s always hope for the future though, right? Plus, I’m a firm believer that things need to be personalized to hold sway, and that people need to live their truths.
My truth is that racism has been a deeply personal and at times alienating experience. And that because of that, I’m terrified of addressing it. But I don’t want to be.
Right now, racism is an afterthought for many of my closest loved ones, just as is the case for so many other White Middle Class Americans. It’s an abstract idea from which they’ve convinced themselves they’re far removed. The real statistics surrounding Black oppression have no bearing on their own lives.
Well, maybe the next part of my story will be to help change that. To make it real. Because if I can forgive and heal and love through it, maybe someone else can too. And maybe, eventually, some statistics might come to light to actually start to change our society for the better.