Growing up in various cities around Washington, D.C. that were inhabited by just about every race and skin color, I didn’t look particularly different from everyone else. My brown, biracial skin wasn’t out of place or something that drew attention, so I never really thought about race. I noticed other things, though.
Like income disparities because we were poor. Poor-poor. Not lower-middle-class, but well-below-the-poverty-line, begging-for-money-on-the-streets poor. The kind of poor that the other poor kids bullied because we were the poorest family in the trailer park, always hungry and never clean.
I became aware of mental differences after we brought into that trailer a young man with a severe developmental disability who was homeless, though we were barely any better. His family had discarded and abandoned him like garbage because of his disability, but he was just a scared, confused little boy inside who needed someone to care for him.
I understood that some people had partners of the same gender because my sister and I lived with my mom and the girlfriend for whom she’d left my dad. Kids with straight parents made fun of us, but I never understood why; at times, she was the most stable adult in our lives, and we loved her.
I was vaguely aware there were differences in gender identity because one of my mom’s friends in the trailer park struggled with hers. During the day, she was the man she was physically born as. And in the evenings, she transformed into the woman she really was, and there were few who were accepting of the transformation. But to us? It was just who she was.
Race, though? For the first eight and a half years of my life, I was barely even aware of it.
But then something happened that gave me no choice but to notice differences in skin color. The first time was after we were placed in foster care in a very small town in rural Virginia. My sister and I—who looked “white with a tan”—found ourselves asked about where we were from and our skin color. I didn’t put much thought into responding, explaining my mixed-race heritage. Before that first week in our new school was over, however, a boy in my third-grade class shouted at me in the hallway.
Even telling the story now, I feel the shame, embarrassment, and confusion that swept over me then. I froze, feeling guilty for existing, as the word rolled around in my mind and I wished I could disappear into the floor, away from the eyes of the other kids who were now staring at me. Kids that I suddenly realized didn’t look like me. Instantly, I was hyperaware of my mixed-race heritage and the fact that I now lived in a very white town.
By the time we moved from a farm on the outskirts of town into the town limits a few years later, I was familiar with the area’s love of the confederacy courtesy of the proliferation of rebel battle flags (what most people picture when they think of the Confederate flag) attached to truck beds and adorning car windows. In fact, the folks across the street from our new house even flew their rebel battle flag above our nation’s flag.
Years later, my foster mom told us about the townsfolk who called her in the months after we’d arrived, worried that my sister and I were sitting in a fast food restaurant with two black men. They didn’t know that one of them was our new social worker and the other was our father. Although I believe they meant well, I doubt they would have made that call if the two men had been white.
I had a friend whose parents decided she could never come to my house again after they found out I wasn’t purely white, though they grudgingly allowed me to continue going to theirs. Another friend’s father beat her after he learned we were hanging out with one of the few black kids in town; while he never found out I was biracial, she was still never allowed to hang out with me again because I “associated with black people.”
I was fourteen, about to meet my boyfriend’s parents for the first time when he stopped me just before opening the front door. He turned and told me not to mention to his parents that I was biracial. When I asked him, shocked and incredulous, if his parents were racist, he responded, “No, no. Not at all. They don’t have a problem with people of color. They just don’t want me dating one.”
But isn’t that racist?
That type of inconsistency—of hypocrisy—was exceedingly common in that area and accepted as a truth; anyone who questioned it as I did simply “didn’t understand.”
Here’s the thing, though: my sister and I didn’t just encounter racism from white people who found out we were half-black. We also encountered it from black people.
In my early teens, I thought I was friends with a black boy who lived in the same town until I found out that he made fun of me when I wasn’t around for “trying to be black.” My sister roomed with a few black girls for a pre-collegiate visit who publicly ridiculed her for not knowing what a weave was. Then there were the black kids in the group home I lived in for a few months when I was thirteen who told me I was so white I had no right to claim being biracial, calling me names like “cracker” and “oreo” and stealing my few belongings as retaliation for my audacity to claim my mixed heritage.
And then are the people who were condescending or rude because they assumed by my skin color that I was Mexican, only to apologize and change their attitudes once I corrected their assumption. But every one of these experiences left questions in my mind.
What does it matter if I’m Mexican or biracial or neither? Why does that knowledge instantly change how I’m treated? How others are treated?
I thought about all these experiences a few weeks ago when I read a piece on outrage culture by Jacob Nordby. He starts out by talking about how he posted an excerpt from Morgan Freeman’s interview on 60 Minutes where he was asked how we stop racism. Morgan Freeman had responded, “Stop talking about it. I’m going to stop calling you a white man, and I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a black man.”
YES, I thought. Exactly. The more we emphasize these divides, regardless of intent, the further we entrench them. Until we stop emphasizing differences solely for those differences’ sake, they will continue to be forefront of our thoughts for no productive reason.
In the post, Jacob Nordby talked about how the comments to his tweet went crazy, with people so outraged by what Morgan Freeman said and how it made him feel sick. I could understand, because I felt sick as I read about what happened. I agreed with both of them, but I was afraid to speak.
I was afraid of being harassed by people who disagreed. Afraid of being reminded again that I don’t really belong to any one group. Afraid because I know there are other mixed-race people out there being attacked and silenced as if their experiences don’t matter simply because they aren’t black or white, but rather both.
But isn’t that racist?
I recently listened to a panel of black speakers in a corporate setting. Several of the speakers—all successful, upper-middle-class men and women—talked about their own experiences with being personally discriminated against or the offenses their families or friends had endured. They talked about all the support they’d received from friends and coworkers since the explosion of violence and Black Lives Matter.
Their stories were moving, infuriating in the way they should be—how the hell can one human being treat another so… inhumanely? My mind wandered to the many others who are discriminated against in our country and the world; while this panel was specifically for telling the stories of black people, their stories aren’t the only ones that need to be heard.
My thoughts returned to the panel as another speaker started. She talked about how one of the things we can do to start fixing racism is stop lumping black people into a single group, to stop stereotyping them, because they aren’t all the same. In my heart, I was cheering her on because understanding how pervasive stereotyping is and becoming aware of everywhere it exists is necessary before we can do the work to eradicate it.
Stereotyping and discrimination against anyone who’s “different” has become ubiquitous, passed down over generations. Children aren’t born with pre-formed ideas that certain groups of people are worth less than others, that the color of your skin or your sexual orientation or religion has some bearing on your right to live and be treated equally. That’s something we all, as a society, have been taught and continue to teach the next generation courtesy of grandfathered practices so deeply steeped in prejudice that even the most well-meaning of us don’t see everywhere it exists.
We have laws in place to prevent exactly the types of discrimination and violence that we see all around us. But when people feel strongly enough about something, they will find ways around the obstacles they face, and that’s what we see happening now. The laws are largely ineffective because passing a law does nothing to change a person’s mind or to undo the conditioning since birth to assimilate a discriminatory and stereotyping mindset. We, as a society, have to take action to realize this fact and then work to dismantle it by reconditioning our thoughts. In order to do that, though, we have to first identify every way we stereotype other people, however unintentionally.
The panel speaker addressing stereotyping continued by saying, “You white people…” and my stomach dropped. She explained that the best way white people can help is to stop getting so upset by being lumped together when black people are talking about racism. She explained that obviously there are exceptions, and that black people know that, so white people should stop being so offended by it.
She was advocating for stereotyping—only in the opposite direction.
But isn’t that racist?
How can people demand equal treatment—either for themselves or for others—while refusing to give the same treatment to other groups?
How can we, as a society, as human beings, feel settled about focusing on one group of marginalized, mistreated people in this country while ignoring all the others?
Is my experience of someone calling me a nigger when I was an eight-year-old child—the deep and abiding shame over who I was, the feeling of guilt for simply being alive—somehow less valid than another person’s experience of the first time it happened to them simply because I’m mixed?
Who the hell are we—any of us—to tell some people they have no right to speak because they haven’t experienced enough racism or enough discrimination? What is enough? If one person has been raped more times than another, does that mean the person who’s been raped fewer times doesn’t have a right to an opinion about sexual assault and how to address it? That the person’s experience of rape is somehow not valid?
We’re people—all of us. In 1965, James Baldwin said, “One of the great things that the white world does not know, that I think I do know, is that black people are just like everybody else.” And that’s true whether we’re talking about black people or gay people or poor people or trans people or women or any other group. We’re all people. Human beings with hopes and dreams, fears and grief. Human beings who laugh and cry and love and feel pain.
And that’s what should matter. That’s what should be emphasized.
We need the stories to be told to understand the myriad ways that prejudice has manifested and been passed down in our society in order to root it out and rewrite how we treat each other. We need to actively and openly listen to people who have experienced things we have not and people who belong to groups we don’t in order to fully understand the extent of this deeply-rooted disease—and make no mistake, discrimination is a disease—infecting our country and the world, begin to dismantle it, and place us all on level ground.
And isn’t that what we really want, anyway? For all of us to be treated the same, to be treated equally? To all be safe walking down the street, free to speak up when we’ve been abused, and confident that we are provided the same opportunities and compensation? This would be a society—a culture—of love. Love for one another, love for humanity. A culture of celebration of the unique individuals we were born to be without emphasizing differences that have no bearing on who we really are or the fact that at the end of the day… we’re all people.
Rhetoric matters. The same mind can believe strongly in ending racism against black people while simultaneously thinking that all Mexicans are criminals and should be locked up at the border and that same-sex couples will destroy the fabric of our country. It may seem incongruous for those thoughts to be present in the same mind at the same time, but—sadly—it isn’t.
So when we have a call to action that puts one marginalized group into the spotlight, we’re also—unintentionally—saying it’s okay to discriminate against other groups. The real problem is that we discriminate at all; until we can address that as the root of the issue, we’ll never make any real progress towards eradicating it for anyone. And one of the first steps is to stop emphasizing and sustaining hyperawareness of differences that reinforce the “us versus them” mentality required for stereotyping and discrimination to exist at all.
That’s what I believe Morgan Freeman was getting at with his response. It is critical that we change our call for action—the terms we use to even think about the future and what it should look like—if we truly want to see lasting change and ultimately live in a society in which people are treated as equals.
A society in which we don’t have to explain to our children that there are people who may think that they don’t have a right to exist simply because of the color of their skin or the language they speak or the neighborhood they grew up in or the people they love.
A society that is free of discrimination.
A note about the writing of this piece
As with any written piece, there were several drafts between the initial writing of the above and the version you just finished reading. And I knew from the moment I decided to face my fear head on and tackle the topic of discrimination that my words would resonate with some and offend others. This is the reality of being a writer, particularly when you write about sensitive topics. What I hadn’t expected, however, was to encounter such strong reactions—both positive and negative—before I’d even published it.
In addition to obtaining editorial feedback from my editor and another writer, I decided to share this piece with a handful of friends and family prior to publication so I could incorporate their feedback to improve the efficacy of the piece; as with anything, the more personal the topic, the easier it is to miss the forest for the trees, so to speak, and the more valuable an external perspective.
When it came time to receive their feedback, I was in my most vulnerable state; while I expected once I published the piece to encounter negative reactions from people who disagreed or misunderstood what I was trying to convey, I had not expected that type of judgmental response from people who knew me well. So, when a family member and a friend both conveyed they didn’t believe I had a right to have an opinion on racism and discrimination (for different reasons), I was devastated. I questioned myself and nearly tossed the piece in the trash, sure I had nothing of value to contribute.
However, I considered the other feedback I had received, the unexpectedly emotional response from others who had read and identified with what I had written courtesy of the types of discrimination they themselves or people close to them had experienced in their lives. Knowing that my words had helped people gave me the strength to reconsider abandoning the topic and reminded me that my initial response is the other side of the problem we face in our country: the automatic self-doubt and self-dismissal when encountering discrimination, sure deep down we must deserve it simply because someone else thinks we do.
Instead of closing myself up to avoid experiencing and acknowledging how hurt I was, I left myself wide open and approached the upsetting comments from a different perspective. I asked myself, “What’s causing them to say this? Where is this judgement coming from?” Then used what I discovered to overhaul the language in my piece to avoid the automatic shutdown and dismissal that certain phrases were triggering.
In that quest to determine where the sticking point was arising from and what would clarify, I engaged in truly painful debate that I much preferred to shy away from. What resulted, however, was not only a rewrite of this piece that would allow it to reach and resonate with more people, but also meaningful discussion, opening of another’s mind to a different perspective, and strengthening of a relationship that could easily have been ruined.
Topics like discrimination are HARD; they’re personal and emotional and require a terrifying and painful vulnerability. But if we’re willing to lean into it? That’s how we’re going to effect meaningful change and make the world a better place, one conversation at a time.
Katherine Turner is an award-winning author, editor, and a life-long reader and writer. She grew up in foster care from the age of eight and is passionate about improving the world through literature, empathy, and understanding. In addition to writing books, Katherine blogs about mental health, trauma, and ways we can be more compassionate as a society on her website www.kturnerwrites.com. Sign up for her newsletter to stay up to date and get a free copy of her book moments of extraordinary courage.