Hashtags make things less scary. Perhaps this was the logic behind Starbucks’ short-lived #racetogether initiative. In February 2015, the company called upon their baristas to write “#racetogether” on customers’ coffee cups should they want to engage in a critical conversation about race relations. The push married social media postings with face-to-face interaction, inviting ignorance, prejudice and discomfort to your morning commute.
Most of the white people I know, myself no exception, are terrified of talking about race. Terrified of saying the wrong thing, of coming across as racist, of unwittingly contributing to a hundred more years of injustice. But maybe that slanted tic-tac-toe board can be a launching pad, a unifying cushion. There’s solidarity in a Twitter trend, and catchphrases can be masked as courage: #blacklivesmatter #downwithwhitepriviledge #I’mlistening.
But, months later, the discomfort remains. #racetogether was a humiliating failure, and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced its cancellation less than a week after its introduction, after instant and abundant mockery on Twitter and late-night comedy bits. For capital or grace, Starbucks was only seeking to continue a conversation already taking place nationwide. On what is becoming a weekly basis, thousands of links are liked and shared showcasing another unarmed black teenager is shot by a white policeman, or another bigoted chant recorded at a college party. We are talking more, but the fear isn’t gone. If anything, the fear has only increased with our awareness. We need more than 140 characters, more than the three minutes it takes to blend a Frappuccino. Slogans don’t shift attitudes, stories do. I’ll start with mine. And then I would like to hear yours.
There are 30-year-old birdshot bullets engrained in my Uncle Tom’s leg. On Nov. 3, 1979, members of the Klu Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party opened fire on a Communist Workers’ Party rally in Greensboro, North Carolina. Five marchers were killed, and many more were injured. As the Klansmen fired the first shots, Tom Clark hid behind his pick-up truck, his cracked acoustic guitar still wrapped around his shoulder.
There’s a video of the shooting on YouTube. In the first 20 seconds you can see Uncle Tom, and leading a crowd of earnest protesters in a chorus of “We Shall Not Be Moved.” His coppery red hair is tucked under a navy blue baseball cap. He is surrounded by picketing hippies, white Klan hoods hung from sticks in mockery and several black children wearing bright red berets.
A sage green Cadillac inches up to the chanting crowd. There’s a confederate flag sticker on the bumper. Other cars soon follow, lining up behind the Cadillac. The crowd stops singing and starts chanting viciously:
Death to the Klan! Death to the Klan! Death to the Klan!
The car windows start to roll down slowly. You can’t see the gunshots, but you can hear them. And you can see the bodies fall.
I tell this story often. I’m proud to have a family member who literally stood up for civil rights when many in his generation did little more than buy a few Motown records. But I’m not so proud of my great-grandfather.
Stuart Omer Landry was a true New Orleans aristocrat; he wore a straw top hat and made regular appearances in the Society section of the Times Picayune throughout the first half of the 20th Century. Born and raised in rural Louisiana, Stuart was a self-made man who grew up to head one of the South’s most lucrative advertising agencies in the 1920s. After losing his fortune in the Crash of 1929, Stuart created Pelican Publishing Company, where he published his own work as well as other prominent Louisianans’ for more than 30 years.
In 1945, Stuart authored and published The Cult of Equality: A Study of the Race Problem. The cover design features an unbalanced beam scale with a white figure standing on the higher pan and a black figure standing on the lower pan. The book seeks to refute the “obviously fallacious” argument that all races and ethnicities are equal, and provides pseudo-scientific evidence that persons of African descent are biologically inferior to Caucasians. Supporting sections discuss skull size and shape, facial angles and “skin thickness” as indicating qualities of Negro inferiority.
My grandmother defended her father’s character in a collection of Landry family photos and documents she assembled in the late 1990s:
“Some of his ideas, such as his belief that the Negro race would never be the equal of whites, outraged those of liberal thought, including his children,” Cynthia, Stuart’s eldest daughter wrote. “But what those who were angered by this idea who were not his family and friends did not see was his kindliness, his goodwill to all, black and white, his good humor and charm…”
However, my great-grandfather is straightforward in his book’s concluding clause:
“The Caucasian race is indeed the greatest of all peoples, and if it dies the glory of the world will perish with it.”
My parents are part of the “Remember the Titans” generation. My dad, along with his brother Tom, played football against the high school team in northern Virginia one year before they integrated with the black high school. He knew all the names on the back of the characters’ jerseys in the movie.
I was raised in a progressive suburb of Washington D.C.—a 70 per cent white population, but, boy, did we boast the little diversity we had. There were one and half black kids in my graduating class. My mother remembers me running into the house on the day a new family moved up the street, who were also named the Clarks.
“Good news, Mom!” I cheered. “We have new neighbors! And they are African American!”
Growing up observing Martin Luther King Jr. Day and writing history reports about the Underground Railroad, I believed that racial inferiority was a dead and disproven philosophy from history—judging someone based on the color of their skin was like believing the sun revolved around the earth.
I didn’t stop to question it until I was about nine years old. I was playing dress-up with my best friend from the neighborhood—a girl who was two years younger, but probably equally mature as I was. We were pretending to be the Spice Girls.
“I’ll be Ginger, and you can be Scary,” I suggested.
“Oh no, I don’t want to be blackie,” Kate said.
“Blackie? I think you’re supposed to say Afro-merican,” I said. “And why wouldn’t you want to be one of them? We always talk about how brave they are at school.”
“I don’t care if they’re brave; I just wouldn’t want people to feel sorry for me all the time.”
It was a seven-year old’s honest interpretation of what she had learned in school. She was not full of hate, but pity. Black people don’t get treated fairly. So why would you want to be one of them?
“Okay fine,” I said. “You can be Baby.”
Scary Spice continued to be the least popular among my friends. I think it had less to do with the color of her skin and more to do with her crazy outfits and hairstyles. And plus, her nickname was Scary.
A few years earlier, my dad had taken me to see Diana Ross perform at a massive outdoor arena for my very first concert. I can still see the sparkles on her blue sequined dress, a figure no bigger than a crayon from our back row view. I spent the ride home trying to fluff and tease my limp brunette hair into a beautiful Afro so I could look just like Diana Ross. Hers was twice the size of what Scary Spice’s would be.
But I didn’t want an Afro anymore by the time I was nine. I wanted Ginger Spice’s hair, red like a maraschino cherry.
Little did I know that one day I would become Scary Spice. For my best friend’s Sweet 16 party, the theme was rock stars and five of us decided to dress-up as the Spice Girls, as nostalgic as something can be just five years after the fact. I was generally seen as the goof of the clique, so I elected to dress as Scary—by ruffling my hair, spraying copious amounts of bronzer all over my face and wearing a leopard print bra on top of a brown sweater. The sweater was supposed to be my skin.
I can name a few of these, my unintentional acts of racism. I didn’t learn about black face in minstrel shows until college, late high school at the earliest. As a twenty-something I worked as a barista in a coffee shop in Cambridge, Mass. where we served a Guatemalan roast as our house blend. On busy mornings, our cashier used to yell “Medium “guat” with cream,” until one day a customer informed us that this abbreviation was actually a racial slur. In a graduate school, I submitted an essay to my writing workshop where I described the Belizean woman who used to clean my parents’ house as having “bulging, round eyes” after she warned me of the coming apocalypse. My professor, a black man who has written a critically acclaimed memoir about race, couldn’t keep a straight face when he announced to the room that this description played into the humiliating stereotype of a credulous slave mammy. My class, mostly composed of twenty-something naïfs like me, hadn’t picked up on the connotation either.
“I’m part of the Obama generation,” I told my professor. “That context doesn’t exist for us. I was just being honest! Her eyes really did bug out.”
He laughed, and let me know how much fun he had telling his friends about what I wrote. I crossed out the sentence several times.
The majority of people I’ve introduced myself to have unknowingly made a similar gaffe. Almost every time I tell people my name is Susannah, I get bombarded with the chorus of Stephan Foster’s “O Susanna,” a minstrel staple that has become a folk classic.
“Don’t worry,” I usually respond sarcastically. “I definitely won’t be crying for you.”
What I want to tell them is that there is a forgotten verse of “O Susanna,” one that might make them rethink their opinion of the song:
“I jump’d aboard the telegraph and trabbled down de ribber,
De lectrick fluid magnified, and kill’d five hundred nigger”
Is it still racist if the commenter is unaware of the connotations? Is it even worth pointing out anymore?
I witnessed intentional prejudice for the first time when I was 19. Still reeling from a traumatic experience on a Greyhound bus from Washington D.C. to Fredericksburg, Virginia, I ended up catching a ride from a kind old woman who had been on the bus with me. We had watched from the sidelines as a group of rambunctious passengers tried to stage a mutiny to get the driver to take a different route. There was a lot of yelling and cursing and chest bucks. We had gotten off a stop early in fear for our safety, and the woman’s son picked us up to take us the rest of the way to Fredericksburg.
Her name was Rose and she was wearing what a teenager would wear as a Grandma Halloween costume—loafers and a sweater with a giant cat knitted on.
“Good riddance,” Rose said as we got into her son’s car. “Did you notice how we were the only white people on that bus? No wonder.”
“I told you to stay off those nigger routes,” her son said from the driver’s seat.
And after that, present-day racism was no longer an urban legend to me. I paid close attention to news stories like the Duke Lacrosse rape and the death of Treyvon Martin. I made it priority in life to never come across as racist, no matter how innocent my intentions.
But things got a little more complicated with Mikey. Of all of my friends with different skin colors, Mikey has drawn the most attention to his, writing slam poetry about being black and frequently commending me for “not having an ass like a white girl’s.” He grew up in Southeast Washington D.C.—the real D.C. He gets furious at me when I tell people I’m from D.C.
“We are not from the same place,” he always says. “I’m from the hood, you’re from country club hills.”
We met soon after I moved to Boston and became fast friends, bonding over our love of D.C. hip-hop and foreign films. He has a reputation among my cohorts for being a “player.” He’s not afraid to tell a woman when he thinks she looks good. And he’s not afraid to invite her over, either.
After giving me a ride home one night, he parked in front of my house and we sat in his car for a few minutes, talking about our respective lives in Boston and what we missed about D.C.
“You know, Susannah,” he said. “I think the only reason you won’t get with me is because I’m black.”
It came out of nowhere.
“That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” I responded immediately, although my stomach tightened with anxiety. Did he really think I was racist?
“Oh, really? Name one reason why we haven’t hooked up yet.”
I didn’t know what to say. I thought about calling him out on his promiscuity, but I was afraid of sounding judgmental. I thought about telling him that I found people like Kanye West and Terrance Hayes extremely attractive, but I was afraid of indirectly calling him ugly. I thought about telling him I wasn’t looking to date anyone, but I was afraid of lying.
I felt a panicked urge to lean in and kiss him, and only to save face. What if I didn’t kiss him and he told everyone that the reason why I wouldn’t was because I didn’t like black people? That I was a bigot. In that moment I couldn’t imagine anything worse.
I leaned forward. And I then I undid my seatbelt.
“Because we’re just friends, Mikey,” I finally said. “You know that wouldn’t be a good idea.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be your first black dude anyway.”
We laughed it off before I wished him goodnight and got out of the car.
The prevalence of racism is undeniable in the cases of Mike Brown, Eric Garner and the fraternity brothers in Oklahoma who ecstatically sang about lynching. The viral status of those links is justified. But regardless of what I feel compelled to share and retweet, a more subtle racism is embedded in more mundane interactions, the stories without baiting headlines. If I had been raised in the elusive post-racial society we dream of, I wouldn’t have even considered kissing Mikey, not even for an instant.
How many generations will it last? I love my father, who loved his mother, who loved her father, who hated black people. As long as I’m still afraid of coming across as such, racism still exists.
I believe that stories of racism are the kind you need to read all the way through, with context and complexities that won’t fit on your newsfeed or on the side of your coffee cup. So thank you, not only for clicking, but for making it to the end and considering one minuscule point of view.
I can keep sharing shameful memories and I could quote Sam Cooke lyrics to convince you that I Am Not Racist, that I acknowledge my privilege and wish to be an ally. But even if you believe me, I’ll still be scared. Things will still come out wrong. I’ll keep getting sunburned and my uncle will still get stopped at airport security to explain the metal in his legs. The stories won’t get any shorter. But you should tell yours anyway, the whole thing. Especially if you’re scared.
Susannah Clark is an essayist whose work has been published in Flyway, Extract(s), Inside Higher Ed, and others. She recently moved to Stillwater, Oklahoma by way of Delhi, India. She feeds off culture shock.