I met my godfather, who we affectionately call Pop, when I was 11 years old. He and my mother taught together at a Kansas City high school a few miles from where I grew up. I was a ‘hood kid being bullied by white kids at my private school. There were “niggers don’t belong” notes left in my locker and on my desk, “accidental” feet stuck out in the hallways and aisles between classroom desks. I played tennis, but instead of inviting me to their country clubs, they locked me in the racquetball courts where I practiced at lunch. My teachers and other school officials found no merit in my cries of racism. I was just ”begging for attention.” As the only poor black girl in the sixth grade, I was easy to dismiss. I struggled to not be reduced by my pain or reciprocate the hatred being hurled at me.
So, when it came time for me to be baptized, I thought the white history teacher was far from the obvious choice to be my godfather. I didn’t fight my mother on her decision. But I questioned it.
Shortly after my baptism, my mother sent me to spend the weekend with Pop and his wife. During the car ride to his house, my eyebrows sat high on my forehead, still unsure of how I felt about him. That didn’t last long.
My godparents planned weekend activities that would woo any child. We ate pizza and watched movies. They took me to a Renaissance fair, where I rode a horse for the first time. We ate cotton candy, played games. I slept like a baby in their guest room waterbed. Their house became a second home.
Even when my mom and I moved to Los Angeles, they sent me tennis clothes and shoes to support my athletic endeavors. They called and wrote letters. They never missed sending a graduation or birthday gift. I was in every respect, like their child.
In recent years, our interactions have been limited to Facebook messages and sparse phone calls. I’m still in LA. My godparents have since retired to a quaint Florida retirement community.
As the NFL season began, and Colin Kaepernick was still jobless, I began seeing disturbing posts on Pop’s Facebook page. They were so egregious, I would’ve sworn someone had hacked his account. I tried to avoid what I deemed unnecessary conflict. But when I saw a post that began by saying “I’m sorry, and I know I’ll lose FB friends over this, but Kaepernick made a decision and now he pays the consequences of that decision…” then the thread of comments that followed, I had to say something.
Pop’s former students, staff, and myself tried to show him he was wrong. He accused Kap of being another selfish athlete, desperate for attention. He defended the flag and the “Star Spangled Banner,” even the third stanza which clearly celebrates slavery. He sarcastically apologized for his privilege and said it had “nothing to do with his feelings.” That’s when I knew — this was white fragility in its purest form. I neglected to see it because I thought that this man who taught American history and was eventually principal of a predominantly black school, who had black friends and a black godchild would ”get it.” But I learned even the “wokest” of white folks are not immune to the comfort of their privilege.
I thought I could “talk some sense into him.” I tore down his arguments with personal anecdotes about my experiences with racism and verifiable facts.
I thought that this man who taught American history and was eventually principal of a predominantly black school, who had black friends and a black godchild would ”get it.”
“Kap is selfish,” he said. “But he donated over a million dollars to charities, lost endorsements and 12 million in salary to protest institutional racism.” I posted the video of the white cop telling the white woman motorist “we only kill black people.” I reminded him of Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, Korryn Gaines, and Charleena Lyles. I told him these are the fears I have when I get into my car. He said “that’s awful. But the officer was fired. What else can be done?” I said, “how about an investigation into his previous arrests and kills or a statement made by the DOJ denouncing police brutality because cops like these are not an aberration.” He gave me the standard “there must be some good cops,” then said, “you’ve become such a hater.” I was dumbfounded. I posted an article by Dr. Robin DiAngelo, the expert on “white fragility.” He said he had read her articles. I said, “you clearly didn’t learn anything.” I then got the standard “I am peaceful and love everyone regardless of skin color” proverb, straight out of the white privilege Bible.
When I realized I could not make him “see the light,” I was prepared to never speak to him again. For me it was deeper than a simple disagreement. This was someone who claimed to “love me like a daughter,” but refused to see me in the fullness of my humanity and black womanhood – which meant he could not love me unconditionally. And that was unacceptable.
When Trump unleashed his tirade on the NFL, Pop had a change of heart. He posted, “I cannot believe that supporters of Donald Trump condone him calling folks ‘sons of bitches.’ These Bible toting people can’t see why that is wrong?!!” I replied, “But you still don’t agree with Colin kneeling?” He replied “I’ve changed my mind. I was wrong, so be it. I’ve watched a lot of sports and news this weekend and I simply changed my mind.”
I assumed he had seen the brilliant remarks made by white men like Gregg Popovich and Dallas sports reporter, Dale Hansen on the current climate of the country and the necessity for the protests. I told Pop, I appreciated him admitting he was wrong. But it hurt that I was not enough. He had to hear from “other intelligent people” for my argument to have validity.
He replied, “Guess it just took a lot of other intelligent people to convince me and say the same things you said. My blinders are off.”
He apologized. We exchanged “I love yous.” But it wasn’t enough. My soul and my skin were still on fire from his condescension, his accusations that I fabricated my stories, his lack of empathy, and the fact that I asked a question he could not answer. Why was I not enough!?
I thought of all the time, energy and tears I expended to have this discussion with Pop. And all the times I’ve been expected to educate white people who won’t do their own work to understand; who won’t read a book, watch a documentary, yet consider themselves authorities on black behavior without having lived the experience.
I haven’t talked to Pop since he apologized. And I don’t know when I will. I don’t even know how to broach a conversation with him anymore. I don’t know if he wants to learn or grow, if he cares to know about the everyday racism that black people face which often threatens our lives and most certainly our sanity, if he feels the need to interrupt patterns and acts of racism when he sees them, or if he’s just too comfortable in his retirement community to change.
I do know these aren’t my questions to answer or my work to do. My work is to heal my own soul, to not let it become bitter, to be light no matter how the world may see me or treat me.
Top photo: Pixabay
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