I believe that we can only change the world for the better when we acknowledge the ways it has changed us for the worse.
During my college orientation, I thought that I had finally found a place where diverse people could find common ground. I had just graduated from a predominantly white all girls’ school in Tennessee, and I found the prospect of meeting people from different backgrounds incredibly exciting.
One night, I attended a party where I was in the minority for the first time in my life. Turning to the guy next to the stereo, I asked him if he could skip to that song, you know, the one that goes, “all these” and then I did it. I dropped the n word, and I don’t mean the slang used in the song, I mean the word recently banned in New York City. I was horrified.
But nobody else was. They all laughed. I was just another white girl who didn’t know how to rap. Punchline. They all quickly forgot about it.
But I couldn’t. Later that night, I thought about the first time I had heard that word. During a kickball game at summer camp, a white girl had used it against someone on the other team. I had told on her to our counselor. The counselor made the girl apologize, and I thought I had fixed everything.
But as I got older, I began to think that what I had done was useless. Someone had probably reassured the little girl that had done nothing wrong, that it was the awful black child who had gotten her into trouble. I decided that as long as I was not the one who said it, it had nothing to do with me.
The year before that kickball game, an African American girl had asked to play with my hair, and I had agreed to let her as long as I got to play with hers. This was the last time I would approach the idea of racial difference freely. For years, I assumed the same was true for the other child.
But the night I said that horrible word, I realized that other little girl was probably aware of the divide between us if even if I was not. Her reaching out to touch me was probably her trying to understand what kept us apart. I realized that until I admitted that I had heard things and kept silent, I was going to remain trapped inside myself, terrified of what might come out of my mouth.
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