You met Athesia Benjamin, MCC art professor and Brighton resident, several times during the Bernie Sanders campaign: on her appearance in a major campaign video and on her endorsement statement in the D & C.
Today Athesia offers a personal story.
Being one of only a few black people in my new neighborhood, I didn’t hesitate to stop my bike and introduce myself to these neighbors I hadn’t met. Their family looked like a copy of my own: white guy, black woman (African), and a mixed race child. She seemed receptive to my friendliness, and told me to wait while she ran into the blue house to get me her card. As soon as her screen door shut behind her, an awkward silence filled the space between her husband and I. He finally broke the silence by suspiciously asking why he hadn’t seen me in the neighborhood before.
Fast-forward a couple of years later, to this day, September 8th, 2016. My late afternoon stroll brought me into the neighborhood of that same blue house, but this time, I walked past the “eccentric, artsy” house. Most suburban neighborhoods have at least one. As I approached, the homeowner, an older white woman, pulled into the driveway. I walked closer to the now-parked vehicle, as it was only inches from the sidewalk, and I realized the woman would be exiting her car just as I would be walking past. I maintained my brisk pace as I approached her, prepared a quick “hello,” but was stopped in my tracks by her shockingly direct question. “Do you live in this neighborhood?” I began to answer her with my little voice. That little voice belongs to the little me, the one who’s been made to feel as if she doesn’t belong in this country. The one who feels barely tolerated, like a hated step-child, only able to observe the privilege from a distance. But I swallowed that voice and answered with the voice of my strong self, my real self. “Why do you ask?”, to which she responded, “Oh, I just like to know who my neighbors are!”
Can I say for sure that my neighbors’ questions came from a place of fear and suspicion? Of course not. And that’s where the madness begins, but growing up black in America, especially in the exquisitely segregated town of Rochester, NY, you’re forced to become adept at recognizing the fear/racism/suspicion underneath the thin veneer of a smile. In the case of the husband at the blue house, I didn’t even get that fake smile…just a visceral reaction to my dark skin. No matter that I have a Masters degree. No matter that I am a respected professor. In cases like these, you’re always only left with two options: give that person the benefit of the doubt, or confront them. To preserve my sanity and joy, I have learned to err on the side of giving the benefit of the doubt. There are, however, instances in which I must speak. When the offense is too obvious and I know that I owe it to myself to defend and declare my integrity.
In my 37 years, my experience with confronting white people with racial blind spots is as follows: their white guilt activates; the hair-trigger excuses and denial unleash; said excuses/denials wash over their recent hurtful words like a powerful antidote. It’s a salve for the offender, and salt for the offended.
But I am hopeful.
There is an awakening taking place among white people all over America right now. White Americans are coming together, in book clubs, in meet-ups, in online chat groups, to begin to wrestle with their white guilt and privilege. They are attempting to dismantle their own carefully-built silos of denial, prejudice and apathy. These brave individuals are voluntarily checking their pride at the doors of these events, in order to truly examine their own constructs concerning race. It is my hope that these people will then go on to awaken their children and grandchildren, and maybe even begin to forge meaningful relationships with brown and black Americans, since the lack of exposure will forever breed more contempt.
Throughout the generations, black parents could only just pray that white America might soften the blows to the bodies, souls and minds of their black children. My cohort of black parents are no different. If this awakening can continue, it just might be that our great-grandchildren won’t experience the very painful reality of being black or brown in America.
But we still have a long ways to go.