I would like you to meet Ruth. Ruth is a teacher, a mom, a wife. She is well educated. She lives in a small city of 250,000 in the south plains of Texas. She is active in her church and every time I’ve talked with her she has been caring, loving and an absolute beacon of light. These are characteristics any person would want to embody. Ruth is all of these things but she is also more than these traits.
Her soul shines when she laughs. It radiates from her being. People are brighter around her because of her spirit. She makes our glim world full of light.
And more than any of the labels you or we as a society would like to place on Ruth, she is a human being. No more. No less. She deserves to be seen as a person and yet to many people she has never been viewed as such.
I met Ruth and her husband Bradley at a dinner, friends from church hosted. Sitting and sharing a meal with people connects us together. There is something bonding about creating sustenance to share. This simple custom has often changed my life.
The entire night was based around a diverse table coming together and talking about racism. Every person present was there with their own purpose, their own hope of an outcome.
Was to listen and hear.
I desired to listen to the heart of the person of color seated next and across from me.
As conversation developed, it became more honest, more transparent. At that moment, the brutal truth of the life of a black person began to be revealed in our small setting. Miniature glimpses into everyday racism, both subtle and overt, were unfolded in personal, first person narratives.
From the minute I heard Ruth speak about her life as a teacher in a community marginalized, I knew her story would change the hearts of people. Her life, like millions of others, has been one of success through adversity.
Ruth spent her college years at a Local Christian University where she pursued a degree in the science field. One would imagine that at a Christian university, being Christ-like would be paramount, but it turns out racism permeates even the most Divine inspired institutions.
This is where I would like to take you. I would like to put you in the room with Ruth as we talked.
Well, to be honest, it’s conversations like I was able to have with Ruth and Bradley that many white people need to hear because for people of color it’s their life. To white folks – it’s a shock. It’s a shock that’s easy to deny because we would like to think it doesn’t happen or we simply want to act like it doesn’t happen.
Ruth was in university when President Obama was elected. At LCU they would have study sessions for the A&P class. She remembers studying the endocrine system and somehow at a young man’s house in the middle of Lubbock, politics came to the forefront of the conversation. Ruth remembers in the conversation bringing up the mood around campus when she said, “The tension is real thick on campus.”
I stopped Ruth abruptly and asked her to describe the room for me. I wanted to know of what race were the people in the room. It’s important. Trust me.
Ruth: “It was me, the Hispanic guy who invited us to his house, a white girl and a white guy.
Before this meeting her and both the guys in the study group were “real cool”. They would see one another in chapel and chat all the time. She had a relationship with all of the people in the study group but their response to her comment of the campus tension was in her words “They are acting like they are oblivious to this.”
The “this” she is speaking of were sticky notes. Now sticky notes in and of themselves are not bad. They aren’t painful, unless you get one of those damn paper cuts. Hell they aren’t even annoying. In fact they are useful in most cases but the “this” makes sticky notes in this particular story, hostile.
She asked them, “…you didn’t see all the sticky notes on the computers saying, Don’t vote for that nigger.”
— Did you catch that?
Don’t miss this because this isn’t implied or subtle, what happened was posted on public computers on campus.
Someone had gone around the university Library and purposefully attached sticky notes on the computers that read, “Don’t vote for that nigger.”
What’s hard for me to believe is not that some racist did this, but that they did this and no one saw them. I have to imagine that no one saw them do this. I have to.
I can only gather that this person(s) did this in plain sight of others and no one confronted them.
What does this reveal about the individuals as well as the institutional community in this story? Well, we’re revealing the underlying culture of racism in America.
If you’re like me, you’re wondering, “So what happened? Who was kicked out of school? Who was held responsible?”
The good news is the school addressed it in their weekly chapel service. The bad news – it was vague, weak and pushed it under the proverbial rug, when they said, “We need to show love as Christians.”
Ruth agrees, “We do need to show love as Christians, but you know it was just one of those patty cake messages that didn’t really get to the root of the issue that people were facing.”
Back to study night. After Ruth asks if they had seen the sticky notes and you knowing the backstory of what happened at chapel, she recalls one of the young gentlemen in her study group saying, “You black people cry all the time. All y’all think that we are always trying to get at you and that the world is against you. Y’all guys need to just get over it.”
She told me that they “somehow start talking about the issue of the system and how the system wasn’t meant for blacks to succeed and how can we [blacks] succeed in a system that wasn’t even meant for us.”
By this time in the discussion she felt as though it was 3 against one because she felt no support from her Hispanic brother when he said “Oh you need to stop crying.”
Her quick-witted response to his comment was, “Bro. Y’all in the same predicament as us. We were put on ship and brought here. They’re talking about sending y’all back.”
The conversation continues when he responds, “You know what? Slavery happened a long time ago. You guys just need to get over it.”
Ruth smiled even at remembering this and said she was taken aback by their comments. She then said this bit of wisdom, “How can you speak on an issue that you’ve never experienced in your entire life?”
— This is why I love Ruth, she will throw out these nuggets of wisdom that if you’re simply listening to the story only you might miss.
She said, “How can you speak on an issue that you’ve never experienced your entire life.” White people, listen up. You cannot and do not experience racism – EVER! You might occasionally experience a prejudice but never racism. Racism comes from power. It comes from those in a position of power who impose their prejudice over others. Don’t get it confused. And please for the love of all that is holy, don’t ever utter the phrase “reverse racism”. Seriously.
Chances are you’ve played this card when you were called out for being racist or your support of a racist system was realized and this phrase made you feel better. Let us all eliminate it from your vocabulary. White folks will never understand what a person of color in America endures. To ask our brothers and sisters of color to “just forget it” or “stop crying” is to ask them to have a shallow view of history and we can’t do that as a society. A shallow view of history keeps the system in place and hopes to stifle the cries of the oppressed. It’s what the ignorant ask of marginalized.
Our response has to be better than this as a nation. If communities of people are crying out, it’s because there is something that needs to be spoken. When we hear the cries of the people, we should listen, not lecture for silence.
Ruth told me that her and the white guy from the study group never said hello again. “I couldn’t even look at him in his face because I was thinking, ‘How can you be so unsympathetic to somebody in the situation they’re going through when we go through this on a daily basis?’ “
She remembers being one of three black people in the entire science department at LCU. 1 of 3. And when they would try to study with other people, or ask those people to be part of their study group, they wouldn’t join. It wasn’t until those people saw that Ruth and her black peers made high grades in classes that hey wanted to join a study group.
When politics was at it’s peak season, she remembers being shunned a lot. She said that with this group she was thinking, “Finally I get to be in a diverse group where they don’t see me as a black person, they just see me as a person. And just to hear that…
It was a really crazy…
It was just….
It was a scary time because you saw that people were violently angry at the whole election, but you got a good eight years out of that – I think. (Laughter) Just my personal opinion on it. Especially compared to now.”
Readers, this is a true story told from the perspective of a young black woman who was playing by the rules of the system, trying to live a life our society has been selling her as “the best possible way to succeed” and yet even the path most closely resembling the American Dream Path is riddled with the reality of America.
Not only did Ruth experience racism on her academic campus but when she brought up the idea that sticky notes advising people to not vote for a black man in a incredibly racist tone caused this tension, she was told to relax, to stop whining, to just forget and move on. Even the leadership at a university, which states in their Mission And Values, “We treat others with dignity and respect, valuing each person as one made in God’s image.” and yet they presented a vague slap on the wrist when someone completely dehumanizes an entire people group on their campus. This wasn’t racism in a small context. This is a story of what happens when systemic racism teaches people that we are post racial. When we want to believe we live in a post racial society, it is easier to dismiss racist instances because we desire to believe they don’t happen often or won’t happen again. But they do happen often and we are starting to see, they happen again and again.
The reality of America is the reality that racism still flourishes. In 2017 under an administration who’s words are slow to denounce racism, quick to cause division, and passionately selfish, our nation finds itself confronted with people who are no longer racist in the shadows only. They are now filled with zeal and a renewed purpose to remind people of color their memories are too long and they’re desire to find equality, even in the minds of white folks, is not present.
It is up to us to change this. If there is a chance, a dream, a hope, a sense of love that surrounds us as humans, perhaps white folks can begin to move in a direction that displays their willingness to walk alongside their brother and sister of color and work toward changing a system of perpetual white supremacy.
Conversations like Ruth experienced happen far too often and white folks, especially white folks in the south have been taught that black people need to forget and move on. This is a popular opinion by whites. It is popular because if whites actually listened to what black people are saying and listen to how they are treated, disregarded, demonized and force to galvanize by the system, then whites would have to acknowledge how we have failed our brothers and sisters.
I’m here to tell you – white folks are failing. We are failing by not speaking out, by not mobilizing, by not being loving enough to act or loving enough to risk our livelihood for the possibility of equality for another.
*Due to the likelihood of repercussions from an employer, aliases have been used for "Ruth" and "Bradley".