In the college/farming community where I grew up, my father was the hospital pharmacist. He had also been quite an athlete in his day (understatement) and as a hobby, he officiated football. He began refereeing high school football games in pint-sized towns and worked his way up to the college ranks and even became the president of the national association of sports officials. He aimed to encourage more women and people of color to pursue officiating in all sports and levels. My brother and I were raised by parents who exhibited excellence no matter where they put their minds and hands.
When I was ten, my father and another referee were assigned to a game in a nearby town. He invited my friend, Marilyn, and me to tagalong for a Friday night outing. We were girls who played kick the can with our neighbors or hide and seek in wheatfields. Even going to a town a fraction of the size of our own was an adventure to us.
We giggled in the back seat with anticipation of going to a football game under the lights. When we arrived, Marilyn asked me if the Greyhounds (our town’s high school mascot) or the Cougars (the college’s mascot) were playing. I mumbled that I wasn’t sure. The answer was none of the above. We were young, innocent, and a bit clueless. My dad gave me money to buy concessions at half-time and told us to have fun, and he would see us after the game. Please note this was during the ’70s, in small-town America, a distant land where I grew up never considering locking a door, so this wasn’t an unusual scenario.
As we had arrived much earlier than the game’s start time, Marilyn and I ran around until we heard cheers erupt as football teams took the field. We discovered there were not any bleachers, and fans were standing along the sidelines to spectate, which we were unaccustomed, but took in stride and entertained ourselves.
At half-time, we were ready to spend our money and ran up a hill to enter the promised land of candy. We reached the top of the ascent and nearly crashed into a group of high school girls. In unison, we raised our chins to lay eyes on those we believed to be mythical creatures, the ones who could drive, wear make-up, and go on dates. As stars shone in our eyes, the closest girl looked from my blonde-haired friend then in my direction, uttered an expletive followed by a slur. Her words were few but the volume beckoned more eyes to land on me.
I won’t type the expletive nor the slur. This type of language is not worthy of repeating or space on my blog. All slurs are wrong however, in this particular case, the one lobbed at me did not “belong” to my ethnic group.
We stood motionless, stunned for a moment, and as perhaps only grade school kids can pull off, looked at each other and roared with laughter then turned to run back down the hill.
Despite the super-charged moment, we didn’t talk about it then, although we have as adults. We can only surmise that we knew what had occurred was hurtful and didn’t make sense but equally ridiculous for someone to hurl a doubly wrong insult. Racism is rooted in faulty, hasty assessments and misplaced fear. It can be obvious or subtle.
It’s unwise to speak in absolutes. Although, I suspect few people of color haven’t experienced some form of racism. Most of my experiences would be characterized as benign compared to others and those missing from history books or acts of violence viewed on witnesses’ cell phones. Yet this story is over 45 years and despite not recalling every detail, two friends remember, it’s stitched into our histories.
If you were to enter this story, what part would you play?
Are you surrounded by those whose skin tone rarely resembles your own, hoping to be seen as equal and valued? Do you possess a hushed fear that ordinary activities could in an instant turn ugly?
Are you a leader with words laced with stereotypes designed to perpetuate negative perceptions and division? Do you bring up ethnicity when it isn’t necessary to mention?
Are you flanking the leader vacillating between awkwardness and agreement, but by remaining on the same ground, the choice is made?
Do you identify with the crowd, minding your own business, believing the unfolding scenario doesn’t involve you and therefore, not your concern?
Are you now or have always been, the friend standing shoulder to shoulder, turning away from racism as an act of defiance and solidarity? Are you the one who walks beside friends as allies, helping to deflate the power of the maddening crowd?
Who are you?
Who do you long to be?
Guess what? It’s possible to have inhabited many of these characters. Have you ever uttered a word used routinely by others only to discover it was not appropriate or kind?
Allow me to raise my hand.
Several years ago, my husband and I were watching a television program. A woman spoke about her background and expressed how a certain word made her feel. Carl and I gasped with disbelief. This was a word, often used as a verb, we particularly remember hearing during our childhoods. If we had known its spelling, we might have questioned its origins, we hope. We realized how easily our language can be infiltrated with harm when we adopt words without thought. Now if we hear this word we will have the opportunity to gently educate from a place of our own learning.
No matter where you stand today, there is an opportunity to turn around and lock arms with others as allies.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, LORD, my Rock, and my Redeemer.
*While writing drafts of this post, I titled it after the name of the town where my story took place. I had no intention of using the name when posted. It was incredibly interesting to learn the meaning of this word is trumpet, to produce a sudden and brief burst of force. The words we speak may be momentary but carry a tremendous amount of force and the effects may remain longer than when first reached the air and ears.
May our words bless and not curse.