Katrina is a friend who kindly offered to sit down with me and share some of her story, her background growing up as a black woman in Alabama, and her perspectives on some of the racial questions our society has been asking today.
Me: Tell me about some of your experiences growing up--what has your life been like growing up as a black woman in Alabama, and what sort of things pop into your mind, what are some experiences that have shaped your perspective of your race?
Katrina: I would tell you that from a very young age, my race has always been a part of everything, my conversations the way people interact with me - even as a kindergartener--my first real interactions in a public setting with white children was in kindergarten--and...Like, I had a kid accuse me of stealing. Or...the time where I had a couple of kids make fun of how my face looks, because my lips were bigger, or I was darker than they were--or even, you know how kids will stick their tongue out--[I would stick my tongue out and] they would make fun of me and say "are you sticking your tongue out or is that your lips?" that sort of thing as a kid growing up.
[At this point in the conversation, she paused, getting emotional and holding back tears. We took a break for a minute so she could call her mom and get some encouragement from her.]
Katrina: I could count how many people were in that school that looked like me. Do you know what that's like, to have so few people that look like you that you could count?
Being a dark-skinned black girl, growing up in a small community and always sticking out--not only because of the color of your skin but...before puberty I was always the biggest, tallest child in the class. So anything that you say or do is taken as aggression. Or even having kids use the 'n' word to describe me. That's hard.
Fast forward to high school...going to football games or being the kid in the band, and anytime we played or went to a high school that was predominantly black; it was different verbiage, like, "you need to walk in pairs", we weren't allowed to go to the other side of the football field, you can't throw your hands up in certain ways because "there was gang activity 'out there'" and you know...the perception of the other kids or the other fans are bad. But...we could go somewhere, that has a rich history of white supremacy, KKK, anything like that, nothing would be said. You don't feel unsafe there, those places, but you feel unsafe when you're around schools with kids of african-american decent. Or to urban areas---it's not okay okay for us to be around those kids. And (...) my kids have those same things. I had a kid that played a sport, and they went to a school that was predominantly black, and they would ask me saying, "mom why is everyone acting like we can't go around to the other side, why is everyone telling us we can't go to the bathroom, we have to go in pairs, why is everyone telling us we have to have a chaperone for everything-we can't even really leave the stands?--and they never tell us that at any other schools."
And it's not like its purposeful--I don't believe the schools do that on purpose, small community schools--I think that they really don't understand what they're saying, and the impact that it has on those minority children that go to those schools.
Because I'm supposed to feel safe when I go to places where people hate you just because of the color of my skin. I should feel safe there but not feel safe where i go to a place where the majority of the people look like me. It's a powerful message.
Me: do you feel like your experiences would be different if you lived in a different place?
Katrina: it would be different. I mean..you wouldn't have these same incidents that took place in a smaller community...my experiences would be different --I probably wouldn't have come into contact with such hate, at an early age, or some of those views, but I still have friends that grew up in places that were completely different from where I grew up at--and they still had, I'll say similar experiences. (...) We're just saying that hey, I need you to understand this is my experience, this is my life, this is where I started to see things differently at, this is where I started to see where I fit in at, that...I can't be comfortable in my skin in certain spaces.
Even as an adult. applying for jobs or...working in certain areas, there are still those places where I don't feel comfortable in my own skin. And that's not okay. Because at the end of the day I can take off my uniform, but I can't take off my skin.
So some of the arguments that we have nowadays of 'blue lives matter' ...nobody said blue lives didn't matter but 'blue lives'--that's a uniform. Those same officers whether they be of color, a minority or whatever, in that uniform, they're still black. They take that uniform off, they're still black. It didn't make a difference. That's not gonna come off. [...] 'Blue lives matter' ..that's not their race. That is a job...at the end of the day, what you are underneath that...those things are still part of you. You bring those to the job.
Me: You said there's some environments you go to where you don't feel comfortable. What specific things make that happen? What is it that makes you uncomfortable?
Katrina: Even shopping. You [a white woman] walk into a store, you pick up something, you don't have someone immediately harass you or immediately come and ask you if they can help you. Just by looking at something, just by touching something in the store.
I immediately have people that come up to me when I enter a store. All the time. (...) and you can take it as, well that's great they're just trying to be helpful...but are they? Because I like to watch...I sit back and watch for a moment, watch other people around me. And I'll step into the same space, and see how I'm treated. It's not the same.
Me: What sort of messages did you get from your parents growing up about who you were--did they counteract those messages you got from high school or did they kind of imbue this feeling of, you just have to accept it?
Katrina: (my mom came from) a Biblical stance, it's always about love thy neighbor as you love yourself, and wanting to make sure you treat others the way that you wanted to be treated, even if you are being disrespected. To always take the higher ground. Or as my mom always says "turn the other cheek," and I'm like, "but what if I run out of cheeks?"
The above is a transcript of a conversation between Katrina & I. Katrina kindly accepted the opportunity to discuss some of her background and questions of race with me outside a coffee shop early Saturday morning.
I encourage my white friends to reach out to a black acquaintance and see if they would be open to having a similar conversation with you. Be prepared for them to say no, but be hopeful that they may say yes. Come and listen. You can use the same questions or format I used, if you like.