What Missouri Taught Me About Racism

Growing up in a fairly rural community in the “Gret Stet of Mississippi”, my family prepared me well for the type of personalized vitriol that you sometimes encounter when dealing with white people.  Racism for me meant white people calling me out my name with a loud and twangy “nigger” or “gal” and doing ignorant stuff like waving a stupid confederate flag around as they told me to go back to Africa.

Yeah. Okay then.

Other than those random, perplexing acts of stupid, I lived unfettered, completely unbothered by those types of rare and ridiculous moments of bigotry. I was raised with the understanding that I was equal: equally intelligent, equally beautiful, equally capable. The only person that could derail me was me. And I ran with that, making it my mission to succeed. I pursued greatness with abandon, happy and confident about what life had in store. Even throughout some of my more personally rocky moments at Ole Miss, I never expected anything like what I encountered once I drove out of Mississippi up Hwy 55 on my way to Columbia, MO.

No one had ever prepared me for the rigid, institutionalized racism that punched me full in the face–the blatant housing discrimination, the horribly crippling wage gaps and employment disparities, the brazen differences in how the law treated black and brown people, the indifference of the cold superiority complex of white privilege without masks. It was seriously a new day for me. It felt at every turn that the goal of this new cruel universe was more than to hurt my feelings or make me feel bad like in Mississippi. No, this was not personal at all. It was a calm, calculated attempt to put me in my place and keep me there dead or alive. Added to that surreal revelation were the many black people (mostly from Missouri somewhere) who seemed impervious to the weight of misery I felt. The number of times I heard a black person say, “Well that’s just how it is here” or “You just need to learn to get along” or “Just make the best of it” blew my mind.

This amazingly absurdist experience of black people being okay with being less than and the constant battle to remain equal as I had been made me question the validity of my own experiences. Were these things happening to me or was I delusional? Was I maybe blowing the situation out of proportion? Maybe there was something wrong with me?  I wondered about my own sanity as I found myself one day shouting at a particularly rude store manager, “I am NOT FROM HERE. I am NOT one of these scary, whipped black people from around here. I am not afraid of you or the police.”

The day I was arrested took something from me. The vibrant, adventurous black girl I had been withered inside me. I became sullen and suspicious and stymied by what seemed to me to be an unbeatable foe. I understood for the first time that the racism I experienced growing up was not racism. It was racial prejudice born out of ignorance and psuedo-science and well played hands long ago that could be easily fixed by relationships and words and action. What I was experiencing in Missouri was real racism: systematic and unrelenting, designed to wear you down and out until you quit and stayed in a nigger’s place.

As I looked around in my own past, I realized that living in such a small town where everybody knew me and my family shielded me in ways that most black and brown kids don’t get.  My parents and my parents’ parents had impeccable reputations in our community. Everyone knew them. My father was a State Trooper and a deacon; my mother a hard working union representative, homemaker, and deaconess; my grandmother is known everywhere for her kindness, generosity, perfect credit rating, dependability, and baking skills. In small town life, this set my status and gave me freedom to pursue myself.

The reality was so much more complex. My parents constantly shielded me from institutional racism by watching my teachers like hawks, steering me away from places and people who could be seen as suspect with me being guilty by association, monitored my every move, had black and white allies watching me and reporting back to keep me  cocooned. I could read as many books as I wanted, take as many classes as I wanted, go here and there and never feel the press of being black.

It has taken me a long time to come to terms with what I experienced in Columbia, MO. For years, I have avoided the place–until last week, when I had to go back to get a disposition letter so that I could keep my new job. As I drove down Hwy 70, I felt my entire body tense up. I began grinding my teeth. I wanted to cry, to scream, to run, to do anything but get off on the exit that took me into town and to the courthouse. Having been the victim of a sexual assault, I will tell you without reservation and hyperbole that as I drove into Columbia, I felt the same way I felt when I saw my attacker again: cold fear, shame, and anger for the inner things taken away from me.

I immediately cast off the shame–racism is not my fault, nor is it my sole cross to carry. I did not create the system, and I work every day to alter it so that my children (my kin and my students) can experience less of what I experienced. I believe that black people everywhere need to stop being silent about the racism that they experience, no matter how small it is. This “new” age, millenial style racism and white privilege loves to hide behind microagressions and false political correctness. I call them out–call it out. 

I worked my way through the fear–even though I tensed up every time I saw a police officer while there, I got what I went to get and managed to save my new job. More inportantly though, I recognized that I had succombed to the most powerful tool of systemic racism: terror. Not anymore. I only fear God–no consequence of speaking out frightens me anymore. My soul is secure in Jesus and my mind is at peace within my blackness, so why be afraid of those who can only kill the body?  

Right now I am considering my anger. After all the shame and fear, the anger finally burned everything away, exposing the withered soul that curled up and hid long ago. I have nurtured that self back to health.  If nothing else, I learned to look at the world and the world of the students I teach in a different way. That anger informed how I discipline students, how I teach content, how I move through the world defending those I love from the effects of racism and white privilege. I have promised my life to creating spaces so that black children everywhere can live like I lived growing up–untethered, unbothered, unhindered, the ability to pursue the visions that twirl in their dreams.  

The message I preach is not about the individual, personal attacks with words and pointless images of flags and hillbillies. I just don’t care about that, bro–sticks and stones.  I speak out every day of my life against the real monster: the institutional racism that promotes denial of privilege despite the obvious signs that what  we experience every day is real. Until that cycle is broken, that system is cast down, I have work to do.

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