One of my most memorable moments around race involves my nana. We were very close – she lived with me and my family until I was 8 years old and I loved her dearly. Of all my grandparents, we were especially close – I always felt like she knew me better than any other adult in my life and I felt like I was more like her than anyone else in my family. She was smart, had a good sense of humor and was active. She often had a mischievous glint in her eye. She loved her morning toast and coffee (as do I), and her evening vodka and tonic (I prefer gin). We stayed close throughout my growing up years and when she moved to a senior apartment building in downtown Glen Ellyn, IL, one that was within walking distance of my high school, I made it a point to visit her every Wednesday afternoon during the school year – from my freshman year all the way to my senior year. I’d stop by her apartment, we’d play pinochle, go out to dinner together, maybe watch some baseball when we got back if there was a game on (Nana was a HUGE Cubs fan), and then I would go to choir practice – which took place in a church across the street from her building. This happened nearly every Wednesday for four years and I loved my time with her. I treasured it.
Glen Ellyn is a suburb of Chicago and was (and probably still is) a middle to upper-class suburban community that was nearly all white when I grew up there in the 1980’s. There were few people of color who lived in the town. There were also few people of color in my high school, but during those years, I somehow, in the midst of all that whiteness, became very close to one black girl. Yep, I’m going to say it, “my best friend was black.” It was true. Susan and I did everything together. We were in chorus together, performed in concerts together; we were in theatre together, hung out together after school and had sleepovers on the weekends. We got into mischief together and did things together that I never, ever told my parents about. We frequently hopped the commuter train and spent days exploring the city of Chicago together – dreaming about which apartment we’d live in someday, where we’d be working, imagining a sexy 20’s lifestyle together as young adults. She was there when my mom first got sick. I was there when her mom got remarried and when she had a new baby brother. We were best friends.
One day I brought two of my favorite people together. I invited Susan to join me for one of my Wednesday-after-school jaunts with Nana.
We did everything we always did – we played cards together, we walked to the diner and had dinner together, we came back to my nana’s apartment together and watched baseball before it was time to go to choir practice. I was overjoyed to be spending time with two of my most favorite people. I even thought Nana and Susan had a lot of personality traits in common and would really like each other. And they seemed to.
Fast forward to the following week. The usual routine played out – pinochle, dinner, baseball. Just as I was leaving to go to choir practice, Nana pulled me aside and told me it might be better if I didn’t bring Susan back to the apartment building again, that it had made “some of the ladies uncomfortable.”
I let that statement sink into my stomach like a craggy rock, so heavy it felt like lead. I nodded, didn’t say anything, and went to choir practice.
I never said anything to Nana about it. Not ever. The thought of saying anything corrective to my beloved nana was unfathomable. In fact, I never told anyone about it until just a few years ago. Nana never had to say that it was because Susan was Black and I never had to ask. It was understood. But it changed something in me that day. I can’t say I was shocked, because I had become accustomed to Nana using the phrase “colored people” to talk about Black people. I didn’t feel shocked, but it did leave me feeling deeply and profoundly sad. My nana, who I loved so deeply, had told me the other person, who I loved just as deeply, was not welcome in her home because of the color of her skin. Even thinking about this situation now conjures up phantom feelings of a twisting, jagged rock in my belly and an intense pressure at the front of my head, eyebrows scrunched and forehead lined with a stress-frown. And it’s more than 30 years later.
I knew then that it was wrong and I also knew how painful this information would be for my friend Susan. I wanted to protect her from that hurt and I also didn’t want my nana to be the cause of her hurt. Somewhere deep inside, I think I was also worried that Susan would wonder how far the “apple had fallen from the tree” – would she think I was like my nana in some way? Otherwise, how could I love this person who was also racist? And, I was also protecting Nana, I didn’t want Susan to have a negative impression of her. I wanted her to see the person I loved.
And so I was silent. Complicit.
I never said anything to Susan; I never said anything to Nana; I also never took Susan back there again. And that rock in my belly continued to twist. It sits there today and I can feel it turning whenever I am uncomfortable in conversations involving race. And yes, even as a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant, I get uncomfortable.
As white people, we are not allies. We are not standing in solidarity with Black, indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC) in their fight against racism. We are directly impacted by this disease. We must see the ways in which we have been personally affected by it, name the impact that racism has had on us, feel the pain of the moments of our life, and ground ourselves in love in order to become true partners in the fight against it.
This is personal for me.
My fellow white people, is this personal for you?