After Ferguson, Missouri, and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, a young African American woman who went to my high school posted a long writing piece on social media detailing her experiences as one of a very few black kids in a mostly white school whose sports/band mascot has always been ‘The Rebels.’ Confederate flags were regularly featured as items that showed ‘school spirit.’ I remember witnessing this. Even as a white kid with nearly all white personal experiences with other people, our school mascot being what it was and the constant exposure to Confederate imagery bothered ME. The author and I were never in school together…she is several years younger than me, but because she went to my high school, a lot of my contacts on that social media site picked up on her writing piece from various mutual/tangential places.
(Probably obviously), the author courageously shared a lot of detailed instances of passive and not-so-passive racism she faced in her years at my high school. A few of the people I had social media contact with from high school (black and white former students) copied/’shared’ her post (while giving her writing credit) without further comment. A few of them (white people) were surprised and remorseful (which I know isn’t always helpful), but definitely accepted her accounts. Some of these folks were like me, wishing they’d been more vocal about the things they’d seen and felt that bothered them/that they knew were wrong when they were there and seeing it; some of them were just simply sympathetic to her (‘I’m so sorry you went through this…’), but all of this interaction that I saw was sincere if sometimes misplaced or just not helpful. What really bothered me then (and still does bother me now, for what I hope are obvious reasons) was how many (exclusively white) people immediately discounted or outright negated her experiences. People who (like me) were *not even at school the same years as her,* and who (like me) were white. There were a lot of comments like this…
“I went to <school>, and in my four years there <they always listed some kind of high school social life highlights or accomplishments here such as…on the volleyball team/in the marching band/playing soccer/at every football game/so many parties/etc., meant to show how involved they were and how often they interacted with and saw other people’s interaction with nonwhite students…which they obviously thought made them an expert on the black experience in our high school>, *I never saw any incidents of racism…*”
Of course they didn’t see any incidents of racism. They’re white.
There were definitely things that I FELT in high school that made me uncomfortable (see above ^^^), and those things in themselves are racism. But even if those people I knew could somehow swerve around the constant presence of Confederate flags and General Lee as our mascot to dismiss those quite obvious things as wholly harmless, without a hint of racism in them, it really revved my anxiety up at how readily they dismissed a first person account of racist encounters, because they hadn’t personally been present for them. I wasn’t a social butterfly in high school (and I’m still not), and I never personally saw any overt racially motivated ugliness right in front of me. But why would I see that? No one would aim racial slurs or offensive behavior at me…I’m white. And the people I associated with and observed most in high school, whether by choice or by necessity (I had classes with them/their locker was near mine/whatever), were either the kind of person who would never intentionally say or do a racially motivated offensive thing and self correct if they unintentionally did it and it was pointed out to them, OR weren’t secure enough around me to express something that close to their core and feel certain they wouldn’t be at least judged or maybe confronted about it. If I DID see overt, blatant racism, I’d like to believe at the very least I’d have expressed disgust. But I didn’t see it. Because…well…it wouldn’t happen to me and was unlikely to even happen around me, because of my appearance and reputation. But just because I didn’t see it happen, and even just because my black friends didn’t openly share those kinds of experiences with me at the time, doesn’t mean it wasn’t/isn’t real, for my black friends, or any other black people.
Those defensively dismissive responses to this young woman’s accounts disturbed me. A couple of people actually called her a liar. At the time, I wrote a piece myself that tried to counter that ugliness and address how different people can be at the same place at the same time and experience the same event in a totally different way, and that those differing accounts don’t make people whose accounts don’t exactly match our own perspective untruthful. I’m no longer on that social media site, so I can’t copy and paste verbatim what I wrote there then, but I will try to replicate it here now, because I know there are still people who could benefit from reading my hypothetical scenario…
Five people go separately to a public fireworks display. They all set up their blankets on the grass right next to one another in a close line. Their position on the ground and potential view of the fireworks is virtually identical. They are in the same place at the same time.
Person A’s favorite fireworks light the sky up green. So Person A misses some white and red and purple fireworks occasionally during the show; they are concentrating on never missing the green ones.
Person B’s blanket is set up directly in front of a smoker, and the straight line, gentle evening breeze is blowing in such a way that only the people seated in front of the smoker can see and smell the smoke. Not the people behind the smoker or on either side.
Person C’s forearm gets mildly stung/singed by a rogue spark thrown from one of the ignition sets. No one else in that row was touched by a spark and only a few people at the entire show with hundreds of people were touched by a spark. But Person C was one of them.
The person on the blanket in front of Person D leaned back and knocked over their drink, spilling it on Person D’s blanket and staining it.
Person E’s blanket was next to Person D on one side but another person on the other side, and their other neighbor spent most of the the show loudly talking on a cell phone call, drowning out Person E’s ability to hear most of the music in the show clearly enough to distinguish the songs.
Those five people were asked about their fireworks display experience as they exited the park when it was over. Person A didn’t believe Person E’s account of all the purple fireworks…they didn’t see them…they must not have been there…or maybe Person E is colorblind or something…but did Person E see all those beautiful green ones?
And Person E didn’t believe Person B’s account of all the Hootie and Blowfish songs used in the show. They didn’t hear those songs. They only heard their neighboring blanket sitter’s cell phone call. Hootie and the Blowfish doesn’t belong at a fireworks show. Person B has to be mistaken–even though Person E didn’t hear the music at all.
Person D denied Person C got that mark on their arm at the fireworks show…they didn’t feel any sparks. The fireworks company wouldn’t have this show if it wasn’t completely safe and mistake free. Person C must just be looking for reasons to feel like a victim. That didn’t even look like a burn on their arm to Person D.
Person A will tell person D that THEIR blanket didn’t get stained, so that stain must have already been there before the fireworks show.
Person C will tell Person B they don’t understand all the complaining about smokers there…THEY didn’t smell any smoke…that must have been all in their head.
Just because a relayed experience of the same place and/or time/event you had doesn’t match yours, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong or a lie. Please don’t dismiss, discount, or deny someone else’s experience. Listen to their experiences, and examine the differences and similarities to your own. Different experiences of the same times and places allow us to have a more complete and empathetic understanding of that time and place.