Once Was Blind – Now I See
I grew up in cultural blindness. I have been ignorant, insensitive, implicitly and explicitly racist and full of biases I didn’t even know existed. I didn’t know I was wrong. I am like a large percentage of Americans, especially those residing in the Midwest, where diversity is not as prevalent as in a big city. When you grow up in a predominately white school, when you’ve lived without being exposed to culture and people who were different than you, you can’t help but be insensitive. In my years at NDSU, I have learned a lot and met many people whose worlds are vastly different than my own. They have helped me expand my worldview and I have become more culturally aware. But I will always be reminded of my roots. I began my journey knowing next to nothing about race and culture and how my experience plays a role in it all, but through key experiences I have broken out of my white-washed shell and have learned what it means to be accepting and understanding of those around me.
Belle Plaine, French for beautiful prairie, is a rural suburb of the suburbs of Minneapolis, where we are known for our ‘architectural marvel’ of the two-story outhouse and where we have more bars than churches. I had a graduating class of 111, and most of us had been together since kindergarten. Our class was big enough that there were plenty of cliques, but too small to avoid the town drama. Our star quarterback on the not-that-spectacular football team was also the only black male student in our class. Brandon was awkward and shy, but was simultaneously one of the most popular guys in our class. He was the only one who truly knew how to Dougie, so we all circled around him at every school dance while he showed us his moves. He couldn’t keep a beat, but he was always chosen to do the rap solos in choir (we sang a lot of Glee covers). It was no surprise to any of us that he was voted our Homecoming King, but could barely choke out his speech at the pep rally due to his severe introverted personality. We believed Brandon could up our cool factor; he could teach us the ways to be hip, even though we all came from Midwest farming families. Brandon had a certain lifestyle he had to live up to if he wanted to remain as cool as we all thought he was. Though his family lived on a cul-de-sac in rural Minnesota, there was an expectation that because of his race, he was ‘gangster’, which he had never really been. We all expected him to know about a culture that he had never been a part of.
My best friend in high school was the only black female we had in our class, but there were no expectations for her to ‘act her race’, as we so ignorantly expected of Brandon because she had been adopted and raised by white parents. They had adopted four black babies, hoping to raise them with the morals and culture associated with our tiny town and “give them a second chance”. She had no connection to the culture that we stereotypically associate with those that are black, and she was never forced to pretend she had a connection with black culture simply because she was adopted by a white couple. While Brandon was expected to be on the basketball team, Mariah was making jokes about her lack of black identity. We called Mariah an Oreo, because she was black on the outside but acted white on the inside. She would let out a loud chortle, her large mouth expanding further than we thought possible from her smile, signifying that she agreed, and would throw some made up gang symbol at us and say she was “from the hood.” “I’m a poor, starving, black child!” she would say, convincing us with her joke to share our bag of chips with her. We joked and laughed about racial stereotypes and I never thought twice about anything having to do with race.
Until I started college. My sophomore year I became a Resident Assistant for a first-year, all female hall and got to know girls from backgrounds I had only heard of in Belle Plaine. My job was difficult. I had to form relationships with 30 girls, so much so that if they were having problems they would come and talk to me. At the same time, I was responsible for enforcing school policies I didn’t necessarily agree with. I lost my freedom and my sleep and did it all with a smile on my face. Maybe that’s not what the job description said exactly, but it was certainly my own interpretation. Despite the difficulties, I settled into a job that I mostly enjoyed doing with people I mostly enjoyed being around. I had never imagined that race would play any part in my position. I was doing my job, just as I was taught.
I had two girls who were very good friends, both of whom were black. At the beginning of the year we had gotten along just fine, but we quickly began having issues as they started to break policies in the building. I had documented them for breaking quiet hours a few times, a small and harmless offense in the grand scheme of things, and they began to lash out in response. They lived next to me and it became quite a common occurrence for me to hear extremely negative things about myself through the walls. “How dare that bitch write us up! We did nothing wrong! What a cunt.” I also started seeing anonymous comments about me and other RA’s on the popular but dangerous social media app, YikYak. These words, though I knew they were said in anger, got to me. I quickly found myself addicted to checking the app. The little Yak’s head would spin and I would feel my heart pound in my weak chest. I would read every post, multiple times a day, just to be sure no one was saying anything negative about me or my co-workers. I began questioning my ability to do the job effectively and wondered if the things they were saying about me were actually true, which even led to me consider leaving my position as an RA. Eventually, both of these girls had harassed the RA’s in our building so much and so publicly that they were moved to another building and were given a No Contact Order, meaning they were not allowed to try to talk to me in any way.
As they were going through the conduct process, they told my supervisor that I was targeting them because of their race. As someone who had never dealt with race up close and personal like this before, I was offended. I was mad. I was defensive. I was white and was in power, but was only doing my job. I have harbored a certain amount of hatred for those girls for two years. I thought I knew everything I needed to know about race. I was nice to everyone I came across – wasn’t that enough?
This past summer I lived on campus while I worked with new NDSU students. I shared a suite with a girl I had never met, named Cynthia. I knew nothing about her except that she was black and had blue braided hair, which I had learned from a picture I saw of her. I remember being disappointed that she was going to be my roommate because I believed we would never have anything in common. I was apprehensive for the first few weeks or our living together. I tried to keep an open mind and worked get to know her despite my imbedded biases towards her. It took a while, but I learned to truly appreciate Cynthia and we actuallybecame pretty close. I learned that she is an international student from Nigeria. I learned that we had way more connections than I ever had thought possible. We shared an affinity for Beyoncé’s new album, “Lemonade”, and binged watching Orange is the New Black on our days off. I learned things about her culture back home and I was able to show her new things about American culture as well. But the pinnacle of our friendship took a much more serious form than watching tv and listening to music with her.
The day Philandro Castile was shot and killed by a police officer in St. Anthony, Minnesota, Cynthia had me at a loss for words. At this point in my life, I was in the mindset that being nice to those around me and that being enough. I was nice to Cynthia, I learned things about her culture and respected what she believed in, but it stopped there. I had heard of the Black Lives Matter movement and thought I understood why they were protesting, but believed that they were causing more problems by blocking interstates and highways. I reiterated what my parents believed, once saying, “They’re just making people hate them more by blocking these roads!” I had no idea what I didn’t know.
Cynthia and I were walking across campus to work the morning the news broke: Philandro Castile had been fatally shot by a police officer while his girlfriend and four year old daughter were in the car with him. Castile had no weapon, but had been reaching for his Driver’s License, as the police officer had asked him to do when he was shot. Castile’s girlfriend caught the altercation on camera, posting it to Facebook in real time.
We didn’t see a single soul as we walked to campus; our walk was quiet and breezy. I knew very little about what had happened to Castile, to me it was just another shooting in a long line of black fatalities. But I could tell Cynthia was upset about something. Her shoulders were slouched over more than normal and she was missing her usual bubbly demeanor that I had come to associate with her personality. About halfway through out walk she stopped dead in her tracks. “You know, Erin, sometimes you just gotta be happy you woke up, ‘cuz not everybody gets that.” I looked back at her and saw a sadness in her eyes that I had never seen before. It was more than just sadness, it was fear and disappointment and desperation all wrapped into her dark caramel eyes. I asked Cynthia what she meant, because at this point I honestly didn’t understand what she was talking about. She told me the details of Philandro Castile’s murder and we ended up talking about what it is like for Cynthia to be in America. She told me she has been in my country for a year and a half and in that time she has experienced things she had never seen in Nigeria. “We’re all black in Nigeria,” she said, exasperated. “I’ve never been treated differently because of my skin in Nigeria; I’m a part of the majority there.” She tried to explain what it was like for her to experience racism for the first time in her life. She said she doesn’t understand why she is full of fear when a cop drives past her group of friends, despite the fact that they are just simply walking down the street.
By the end of our conversation, we were both in tears. Hers for the loss of Philandro and the struggles of her community and mine for my loss of innocence. I suddenly was aware of how these people that are different from me, especially anyone that is black, are facing difficulties in their everyday lives that I have never imagined.
I didn’t automatically understand everything that Cynthia, or my residents, or even Brandon and Mariah had gone through in their lives, and I know that I will never be able to fully understand the struggles, but Cynthia’s story and call for help pushed me further on my journey of understanding than anything else ever had. I was suddenly interested in finding the truth. I started doing research, watching the videos of these shootings and reading articles from both left and right wing news sources. I started having difficult conversations about race and discrimination with people in my life, whether they had opposing views on the situation, or had much more knowledge on the situation than I did. This research is what has really brought me out of the blindness I have been living in my entire life. And suddenly, it was as if my experiences had gone from black and white to full color. I saw my interactions with Brandon, Mariah, my residents, and Cynthia as more than just an interaction. I became aware of my weaknesses.
In high school I was young, I was ignorant and I was insensitive. I was unaware that outside of my tiny, white-washed high school our comments would be offensive and could possibly have gotten us into a lot of trouble. My entire childhood I had been surrounded by white people and I hardly knew any different. When new kids came to our school who were from a background other than caucasian, they became something of a celebrity to us. We were naïve and knew so little about the world outside of the 6,661 of us that lived inside Belle Plaine’s borders. Brandon and Mariah just put up with us. They played along with the act. And honestly, I don’t think they knew any different either. Just like the rest of us, this was all they had ever known. I hope for their sake they have an opportunity to see the error in our high school ways as I have and that they can forgive me and also themselves for acting in the only way they knew how. My school never saw blatant racism, or at least I had never noticed it. My class and I never had the opportunity to see our own privileges or even learned what white privilege was. We were sheltered in this tiny, white bubble. I knew nothing else.
As a Resident Assistant, I knew I had power, but I didn’t know how my power, mixed with my innocent ignorance, would create micro aggressions against those I was there to help. I was blind. My residents were not, and saw what I couldn’t see myself. I wasn’t targeting them because of their race consciously, but rather my unconscious biases and misunderstandings of the world around my allowed me to treat them differently than I may have treated others that I felt akin to. And though I do not agree with how they handled the situation, I now understand the fault I have in the matter.
This summer, I let myself fall into the implicit biases I have lived with all my life and judged Cynthia based on the color of her skin before I even knew her last name. But unlike any other experience, Cynthia opened up to me. She shared her story with me and helped me see how much of my life I had spent not seeing the beauty in the people around me.
It’s not enough to just be nice to the people around you. Our brains are naturally programmed to judge and categorize the people we pass, which is only compounded with my culturally blind upbringing. I pass judgments about people that are different than me every day. And even though I outwardly smile at them and keep walking, my inner thoughts come out as actions unconsciously in the form of micro aggressions. Despite how far I have come in my understanding and acceptance of those around me, I will never be perfect. But we take a step forward in just admitting that we are not perfect.
After we admit that, we are able to break out of the bubble that encloses us and causes our blindness. We become able understand and accept each other and allow ourselves to take a step back and listen to what those around us are saying. We need to learn to listen to the stories of anyone we come across; we all come from different experiences and it is only through the opening of our hearts and ears that we will come out of blindness. We need to let the stories and experiences of others become a part of our own lives and let them change our perspective on the world. When we do that, we will be able to change the world we live in, one story at a time.