A year ago yesterday, I was sitting at my computer watching Philando Castile be murdered by a police officer in front of his girlfriend and her little girl. I was horrified. It wasn’t that I didn’t know that these things were happening. It was just that I wasn’t ever faced with seeing them. In living my life, for the most part, with privilege, I had never seen anyone be shot and murdered in cold blood. I don’t even have words for what I felt.
After watching this video, I started scrolling through my news feed. I was noticing more and more of my white friends/family calling for people of color to “get over it.” They accused the communities of color who mourned the seemingly endless stream of losses of engaging in “race baiting,” “resisting,” and “pulling the race card.” Again, I had seen this before. I saw it with Trayvon Martin. I saw it with Michael Brown. I saw it with Eric Garner. But something about this day, one year ago, sent me over the edge. Something about watching a police officer open fire into the chest of an innocent man while a child sat directly behind him and then seeing white people act as if this man deserved it made me decide to confront them. And in doing so, every single thing in my life changed.
It was a small thing that started it, really. I posted the following message on my Facebook wall:
Pretty straightforward. Not offensive. Or so I thought. Then I saw this response:
That person is my cousin. The single like on her comment? Another cousin. I was trembling after I read this. The shock and rage combination was unlike anything I had ever felt before. I sat down in a coffee shop to carefully pen my reply, only to start over three times. I finally posted it before dinner and edited it well into the wee hours of the next morning.
In the hours and days after this, I received multiple phone calls. Black family? Supportive. White family? Pissed. And while it was not the first time that I felt the true division I existed between, it was certainly the most impactful. People told me they were ashamed of me. People told me I was lucky to have even been taken care of so well by my white family. People claimed that this post showed how ungrateful I am, how disrespectful I am. According to one person, I was behaving in an egregiously “immature” manner and shouldn’t use social media to post politics “because that’s not what it’s for.” (Tell that to the folks who planned the Women’s March, right?)
People sent me bible verses and long harangues about behaving in a way that is appropriate for a young woman. Family chose not to talk to me for weeks. And of course, the villain at the center of the entire feud was me. Not the racist cousin. Not the uncomfortable white folks who can’t deal with their mixed race family pointing out their flaws. Nope. It was me.
And the fact is, it got to me. I really did spend a lot of time questioning myself. I was trying to figure out where I went wrong. I was trying to figure out what I should have said differently. I was, instead of holding people accountable for their biases and the ways in which those biases contribute to their reactions, allowing myself to be gaslit in precisely the way communities of color have always been gaslit when they shine any light on racism. The “well saying that makes you just as bad,” and the “reverse racism,” and the “all lives matter,” and the “how dare you” crew came out in full force to police my language and my truth because it made them uncomfortable. I was the bad guy for pointing out their bad behavior. I was “race baiting” by “making this about skin color.” I was “wrong.” And I almost fell for it.
If not for the constant and unwavering support of my friends and family of color (+ some white allies) and my husband, I probably would have fallen for it completely. I would have let the guilt and the tears silence me. But instead, my support system rallied around me and held me up as I evolved into the woman I am today. I no longer fear speaking out. I learned that people are listening and that when they get mad, they are showing me more about them than me. I learned that many of my white friends and family members were not who they claimed to be. I learned that much of the safety/belonging I had found for myself was contingent on my more melanin-laced roots remaining unseen. And I learned that I wasn’t OK with that.
So the truth is, while it was one of the hardest times of my life, the trials of last summer awakened the activist in me. I knew that if my own family and friends could turn on me over the words “Dear White People,” then there was a whole lot of work that I needed to do. Nothing has been the same since that day. Nothing will be the same ever again. And I am OK with that knowing that I am doing and saying what is necessary. I am OK with knowing that I am doing my part in promoting racial justice, even if it means creating waves and, in turn, space between me and people I thought I knew. Off White as she stands today exists because of July 8, 2016. And I am grateful for the pain.