As a child, my favorite movie was Our Friend, Martin, a story in which a group of multi-cultural pre-teens learns about Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights Movement, and racism in America by time traveling to formative points in MLK’s life. I must have watched this movie one hundred times; whenever friends or cousins visited my house, Our Friend, Martin was on the agenda.
In my effort to share my favorite movie, I brought Our Friend, Martin in during Black History Month to for my 1st grade class to watch. I knew every word and scene by heart, so I was confused when my teacher rushed to the front of the classroom to block actual footage from the 1960s of white people beating and spraying Black people with powerful water hoses.
“Why did you block that part of the movie?” I could feel my classmates’ eyes on me.
“It’s not appropriate for children."
“But my parents let me watch it at home."
“Well,” she bent down to my eye level, “it’s not appropriate for the other kids.”
In Manhattan, Kansas, the other kids were white kids. And although I didn’t have the language to articulate it at the time, seven-year-old me knew that because I was Black, I would be exposed to the ugliness of the real world while my white peers would remain shielded.
And as I reflect on the events of last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia and watch fully grown white people express shock that “something like this could happen in 2017,” I realize that the shielded seven-year-olds in my first grade classroom grew into willfully ignorant adults. What happened in Charlottesville, while horrific, is not particularly shocking to people of color who experience racism first hand everyday.
The American public school curriculum provides a brief, simplistic history of the Black experience in the United States — we were brought over as slaves, Abraham Lincoln emancipated us, some bad people were mean to us, then Dr. King said a speech and everyone was “judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.” White people’s white privilege allows them to believe in the fictitious happy ending. Their white privilege shields the true history and present, allowing them to occupy a false reality. Black people — and other marginalized people of color — are quickly disabused of the notion that racism is an artifact of the past. The disparate reaction between Black and white folks regarding Charlottesville is only the most recent example of this.
I don’t recall the first time I realized racism in its many forms was alive and well. It could have been when I noticed my mother had been stopped by the police several times for simply driving while Black. Perhaps it was when my cheerleading coach suggested I sit out the next competition because the makeup would not look good on “someone like me.” Maybe it was when as a college freshmen a white classmate proclaimed that I was an affirmative action admission and my professor quietly agreed. These incidences — all examples of interpersonal racism — don’t begin to touch of the institutional racism I became acutely aware of, including housing discrimination, mass incarceration, and gentrification to name a few.
Whenever the first time I looked racism squarely in the eye and called it by its name, it wasn’t August 11, 2017 when white nationalists marched on the University of Virginia’s campus to defend a statue of a man who committed treason against the country they claim to want to make great again. It wasn’t the next day when a neo-nazi drove his car into a crowd of counter protesters, killing one and attempting to kill dozens more. It wasn’t on June 17, 2015 when a white supremacist shot and killed praying Black people who welcomed him into their church with open arms. And it certainly was not on August 9, 2014 when police shot and killed Michael Brown and left his lifeless body bleeding out on the street for over four hours, eerily similar to the public lynchings of the Jim Crow era.
White people have allowed themselves the luxury of a fictitious happy ending. Refusing to look at history and their own privilege critically has given rise to radical white terrorists. Refusing to believe the lived experience of people of color has given rise to radical white terrorists. What happened in Charlottesville will continue to happen if white people do not put their all into the struggle for freedom. And unlike the case with Charlottesville, next time, they will not be able to claim ignorance.
Katie is a public health professional and freelance writer for hire. Her public health focus is health communication and programming; while her writing focuses on race, social justice, and (of course) public health. She enjoys reading, devouring chocolate chip cookies, and pretending to be from Atlanta. She’s on the Twitter and you can read her other work here.