It happened when the four of us were running errands together.
“We’re white!” my three-year-old son exclaimed from the back seat of the car. Unspoken words passed between my husband and me: Did he really just say what we think he said? We asked him to repeat himself.
“We’re white!” Canon said again, empathically this time, then added, “And blue!” James and I looked at each other: had our boy just recognized his white mama and black daddy and his own skin’s caramelized blend of both colors?
“You’re right, baby,” I replied. “But we’re white and black, not blue. We’re a little bit of those colors.” He thought about that for a second or two before moving on to the next subject.
Our boy had begun to see color.
I never set out to marry a black man, let alone the son of one of the most prominent civil rights leaders of our time—but I’m getting ahead of myself—nor did I expect to find myself passionate about issues of racial justice. Caring about race was for people of color, not for those of us in the simple majority. Besides, hadn’t our ancestors already apologized for the atrocities of our past?
Why did we need diversity, when there were only a handful of kids who didn’t look like the rest of us?
In the seventh grade, I dressed up as Maya Angelou for English class and performed a reading from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I wore loose flowing fabrics, like I believed she would have worn, and I wove a floral head wrap around my frizzy auburn curls. Chunky beads hung down my pubescent chest and I read to my classmates in my silkiest, richest voice. But I didn’t paint my face black or brown or use any make-up to make myself appear darker. That would have been too much. That would have crossed the line.
And I probably wouldn’t have gotten extra credit for dressing up.
So we held race and racism, people of color, and the problems of America’s past at arm’s length. We kept a respectful distance and we tried not to stare when a black family came to our church. We cocked our head to the sides at the swimming pool when their mamas put shower caps over their heads, and we tried not to watch when the black boy at summer camp – the only one who’d come from the local AME Church – threw rocks at the side of the dining hall and refused to come inside and eat.
Were all black people that angry?
In our suburban ignorance – and cluelessness as to the conservative, white, privileged world we inhabited – we didn’t know any better. We didn’t know any better because our schools and our churches and our friends were white. We didn’t know any better because, given our town’s socioeconomic differences, we believed we already lived in the throes of diversity: after all, there were skaters and preps, athletes and drama kids, choir nerds and band geeks. We didn’t know any better, and we didn’t think racism had anything to do with us.
How wrong we were.
I was twenty-five when I first took notice of race. An English teacher, the high school celebrated International Day annually, paying homage to more than fifty languages alone spoken within the student body. My freshmen students may have been squirrely, hard-edged adolescents, but they still wanted to be liked. Miss Mac, Miss Mac! They yelled, calling me by the first part of my maiden name. Taste our food! Watch us dance! Look at what we’re wearing!
They wanted me to see and celebrate the beauty that was theirs, the good and necessary diversity that existed within the walls of our classrooms.
So I scarfed down lumpias dipped in toyomansi from my Filipino students.
I watched a group of normally shy and reserved Mexican girls twirl and shake and smile in unison, with a recreated quincienara dance.
I laughed along with my gregarious fifth period students, Jonas and Unique, at the Black Student Union table, when they offered Kool-Aid and their respective mamas’ fried chicken with a side of outlandish humor to a waiting line of customers.
And I began to see color that day. If action stems from taking notice, my eyes were opened to the possibility of something else, because for the first time I realized it wasn’t about me. A seed had been planted: I began to see culture and race in a whole new way. I began to see our differences as a portrait of beauty.
Perhaps intrigue was the initial drive. Perhaps God had begun to open my eyes to the world.
I eventually left teaching and entered full-time outreach ministry, where I spent the majority of my time working with kids of color. I don’t think it had anything more to do with them needing an adult to befriend and mentor them, and me being an available adult to fill that role. That, and the Spirit seemed to think we were a rather good fit for each other.
They also seemed to need me just as much as I needed them.
So I went to Jamba Juice with Leila, a first-generation Tongan, and I stood in line for Frappucinos at Starbucks with Jenise and Monique, who were black. Three Latinas, Flava, Stacy and Maria, proposed an after school exercise club to their high school’s administration and invited me, their newly appointed advisor, to come along and sweat.
We talked about race and we talked about faith and spirituality. I asked them questions about their families, and although I was single at the time, they learned about mine.
One day Leila and I sat on the sidewalk. A song always on her heart, she strummed her ukulele while I asked her questions. It was our usual Tuesday afternoon routine.
“I don’t like white people,” she said bluntly. I looked at her.
“Um, Leila, you realize I’m white, don’t you?” She nodded. Tears filled her eyes.
“But you’re different. You don’t count.” She went on to tell me about the white people who threatened to take away her family’s house, and how her white teachers were always telling her what to do. White people didn’t listen to her. They didn’t respect her. They took one look at her and judged her based on the color of her skin: stupid, lazy, ugly.
I put my arms around her and let her cry on my chest. Hers was not a judgment about me, but an association she’d made by how most white people had treated her.
I could only say I’m sorry.
Around the time of my conversation with Leila, I met my future husband.
A month after our initial introduction, he began to call everyday around two in the afternoon, just to check in and hear about my day, just to let me hear his voice. We soon set up our first date at a nearby wine and bruschetta bar, splitting a bottle of Pinot Noir and a plate of dressed-up bread. By our third date, four days later, he sat me down on his couch and arranged a stack of books on the table in front of me.
“This is my father,” he said, flipping to tabbed pages in various books, all highlighting the Civil Rights Movement. I stared at the pages before me: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks were names I remembered from my 11th grade U.S. History class. But James Meredith, the first black man to integrate into the University of Mississippi, was news to me.
“This is huge,” I whispered back to him. “Your dad is a really big deal.” He nodded, his namesake a conversation he’d entered into countless times before. As my fingers touched each picture – pictures of his father marching alongside Dr. King in the South, and posing with novelist James Baldwin in front of a New York City brownstone – a thousand questions ran through my head.
James Howard Meredith conducts a radio interview with his twin sons Joseph (front) and James Henry (back) on his lap. (The twins’ names are incorrect in the typed caption.) Courtesy James Henry and Cara Meredith
Not only did I want to know how this prominence shaped the man I already seemed to be falling head over heels for, but I yearned to know how it would affect us. My heart told me there was something different about my James, but was I too different for him? Were we to continue moving forward, would his family, a cornerstone of the black community, accept me, a white woman?
And what of our children? I knew I was jumping the gun, but I couldn’t shake a conversation from my childhood.
“Cara,” my mama once said to me, “you know we’ll accept any man you bring home. But if you marry a black man, I’ll worry about your children: I wouldn’t want them to have to choose between races.” She spoken the only truth she knew, a truth she’d later apologize for and never mention again after her mixed-race grandchildren were born. But would this be the case for us, if we had children together someday? Would our children struggle to find their identity between whiteness and blackness, and what would this blackness mean and represent to them?
Eventually, answers came.
When James met my parents for the first time a couple of months later, race was not an issue. They were smitten by the love this man held for their daughter.
When the two of us flew to Mississippi to meet his family, my litany of questions was answered in a single sentence: It’s not so much about you, a white woman, entering this family, James’ uncle said to me, but it’s about you realizing the impact his father has had on the WORLD.
Arthur’s emphasis lay on the final word, the impact of his thoughts noting pride and honor in his brother’s accomplishments. For James Meredith, I’d come to learn, fought not for the equal rights of African Americans, but for equal rights for all of humanity. That’s what made him a world changer.
I nodded my head. I had a lot to learn.
A statue of James Meredith walking toward a door that says “Courage” on the University of Mississippi campus. Courtesy VisitOxfordMs.com
Eleven months after we met for the first time, James and I married, settling down in the San Francisco Bay Area. The hardships of our relationship in the early years had nothing to do with our respective races but everything to do with learning how to accept the differences and otherness of each other, which included our histories and our cultures.
When the question of children arose, privately and publicly, we found ourselves entering into a whole new dialogue: Would we raise our family in a city we loved, even if we couldn’t realistically afford it? Did it make a difference whether or not our children saw people who looked like both Mama and Daddy?
We chose the route that was right for us, a route that eventually included moving to a place we could afford with a diverse multi-cultural community.
Eventually, we had a son, Canon, whom we proudly nicknamed our “little caramel.” Two years later, Theodore, known as our “little cappuccino” joined the family. Our world is entirely consumed by the little ones who fill our hearts, and who have given us a newer, greater appreciation for issues of racial justice in today’s society.
For we want nothing more than for them to grow up to be kind men who realize that all are equal and all are good and all are valued, precisely for their stamp of humanity. Every single human to grace this good earth has been made in the image of God, and God does not make mistakes.
Last spring, the four of us were driving down the road, when Canon pointed out the car window.
“Who’s that?” he asked, pointing at a homeless woman perched on the corner.
“That’s a person.”
“Who’s that?” he asked again, pointing at a young man with pink hair.
“That’s a person, too.”
“Well, because persons are humans.”
“Well, because humans matter, buddy. You and me, we matter, even if we look different from each other. And every single person on this earth, they’re humans. They matter just because they’re humans.”
This is the truth we want our children to know and pass on to the world. This is the truth we want them to model and invite others into. This is the truth we want them to live into, for even in our differences, a greater truth is embedded within our humanity because we are God’s own.
Regardless of the color of our skin, we have intrinsic worth in the eyes of God.
And this is something, I’m guessing, that you want for your family and your children, too. It starts with noticing: take notice of the faces in your community, of those who make up – or don’t make up – the schools and the churches and the shopping malls you inhabit every day.
Who are those faces to you? What do they represent for you?
Stare at the color of your skin, perhaps for the first time. If you are white, your skin color alone grants you privilege in our society. Privilege isn’t a word we like to hear: it makes the hairs on our backs stand up and an ugly, defensive spirit can emerge within us.
But the ability to ignore the news of innocent black men, women and children being killed is privilege.
The ability to not worry about your son or daughter being gunned down by the police for no reason is privilege.
The ability to walk through a store and not have an employee follow you is privilege.
“It’s the fact that simply by virtue of being a white person, of whatever socioeconomic status, you get the benefit of the doubt,” writes opinion columnist Christine Emba.
This privilege is far from just, but it’s true.
So, examine your privilege. Turn privilege into understanding, and let understanding guide you toward a desire to learn. Then, when your insides are itching and screaming and thundering for equality, let this desire be funneled into activism.
“All lives matter equally to God,” says World Impact President and CEO Efrem Smith. “But in this upside-down, broken and Bizarro world, not all lives are treated equally. This is why we must say Black Lives Matter.”
Let’s do something about this: let’s make all lives matter, including those of our black brothers and sisters.
I’m white, and I have come to no other conclusion but this: I have contributed to issues of racial injustice. I’ve had to educate myself, so I can deal with the shame and embarrassment that comes with ignorance.
But I’m committed to using my voice. I will speak up and I will tell the truth. I will beg for the courage to do and say and believe what hasn’t been done and said and believed before.
I’ve learned to accept that this new way of thinking is a journey I will travel on for the rest of my life. I’ve had to give myself extra amounts of grace, when I’ve made mistakes and said the wrong things, and I’ve had to pick myself up, all over again. But I wouldn’t change this new way of seeing the world for anything.
So, is it the same for you?
Are you willing to speak up and tell the truth, to your children and to your communities?
Do you have the courage to model these values and be a person of influence as we seek to change the narrative of our country, one relationship at a time?
We can be the change we wish to see in our families, our communities and our country. We can take a posture of learning and seek to understand what it means to love others first, before passing judgment upon them.
And in doing so, might we begin to see and celebrate and wildly applaud the profound bounty of color found on this earth. So we can then proclaim – loudly, unashamedly, gloriously – that every human matters.
Are you with me?