The room had the mismatched coziness any good college apartment should have. The walls were bare except for three stunning paintings hung above the couch. On one canvas was a painting of Christ’s crucified hands, another a painting of his feet, and the third a painting of his face.
The women lounging around on blow up mattresses and couches were already rolling with laughter by the time I walked in. These were women who loved the Lord with a sweetness and a depth that couldn’t help but leave an impact on you. They radiated a kind of joy I had never seen before, even after 19 years of living alongside Christians.
I was terribly lonely that first semester, but those women welcomed me in with open arms. An invitation to spend an entire sleepover laughing and talking with them was a dream come true. So that was how I found myself in that tiny apartment, a blonde haired and blue eyed girl, sitting alongside women of all different backgrounds, but all with skin much darker than mine.
“Do you remember the time…” Bryanna’s voice faded into the mixed sounds of laughter and someone offering me dessert and another girl yelling from the back room that she still hadn’t finished her homework assignment.
At the tail end of the story, I heard, “And if I got my hair wet, you know I was upset.” The girls around me burst into laughter. I grinned and attempted a chuckle, but my fake laugh has never sounded real. Bryanna took notice of my confusion and smiled. She patiently explained the effect of rain on newly done black hair to my ignorant, blonde-haired self.
They just laughed with me and moved on from my clueless moment. The evening carried on through more huge fits of laughter to deep discussions of theology to attractive actors to what was happening on campus.
And then to Ferguson.
The shooting was all anyone had talked about since the riots had started, but I’d never heard it discussed with such emotion before. My aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, all of them discussed it over brunch and sweet tea. But I realized as I listened to the women around me—this was personal. It had never been personal to me.
I curled myself up next to the couch, tucked away in a corner on the fringes of the discussion. And that night I listened to a conversation that changed everything I’ve ever thought.
They began to tell their stories. A cruel comment here, an obvious insult there, and time after time in which they had been pushed down and out of sight. Just a few stories in and I wanted to melt into the ground. I felt so ashamed of the jokes and videos and conversations I had passively sat through, even laughed at occasionally. So many things I simply tolerated, when I could’ve been the one to say, “Enough.”
As I listened, my hands gripping the shag carpet, even their most minor stories captured my full attention. My blind eyes were being opened to what racism looks like in the 21st century. This racism doesn’t look like it did 40 years ago, but it is cruel and horrifically unjust all the same.
Now racism looks like police violence. It looks like “harmless” stereotypes circulated through social groups and media. It looks like segregated cities and unfair justice systems. It looks like spoiled white men and women complaining about their “suffering” at the hands of the Black Lives Matter movement. It looks like, “Oh, well I can say that because I have a black friend.”
Racism looks like this and a thousand other things. Things that had slipped right past me.
When the conversation finally died down, I was in a daze. “Hey Jaime, what do you think of all this? I’ve actually never talked to a white person about this stuff,” Bryanna asked as they all turned to me.
There were no words. Or maybe words came out of my mouth, but they sounded more like an apology than an opinion.
In that moment, I made a mistake. I made the mistake of believing I had no right to speak.
If I had known then how rare it was to be in such a safe environment for that conversation, maybe I would’ve been bolder. Maybe I would have asked questions. Maybe I would have asked how I could change my society.
Why didn’t I speak up? The question echoes in my head each time I see another subtle act of racism played out around me. A casual joke spoken in an all white, Illinois church. Fellow students who say, “They should stop complaining, things aren’t that bad anymore.”
I don’t claim to understand the issue in all of it’s complexity. That conversation, or any one conversation for that matter, would never be enough to make me understand. I regret my silence, but just in the listening, my eyes were opened. Once I knew it was there, I couldn’t stop seeing the injustice around me.
My prayer is that you and I, no matter our background, will have the courage to keep asking questions while others try to brush it under the rug. That you and I will stand up in whatever way we can to heal this brokenness.
I will be forever thankful for those women who included me and who opened my eyes to a world right outside my door. One that, perhaps, I would never have seen on my own.
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