A Reluctant Optimist
When the Subject is Race
JANE SANDERS ILLUSTRATION
I am not an optimist by nature. When my boss calls me into her office, my default assumption is that I’m about to be fired. When my leg hurts, my default assumption is that it’s bone cancer. When I was pregnant with Ruby after a second-trimester loss, I refused to buy any baby clothes at all until I was at 20 weeks – and then I bought a tiny pink onesie because I told myself that at this point, even if she died, I would need something to bury her in. (Then I could never, ever dress her in it once she was born.) This is morbidly insane; I know that.
When someone is already predisposed to anxiety and pessimism, it can be very easy, in the face of everything happening lately (the mass shootings, the police shootings, the presidential election), to feel completely despairing and overwhelmed. And yet, I feel like I have to stay positive for my kids’ sake and, for them, I have to believe that things will get better, even when it feels bleak and hopeless.
Last night, as I drove my two girls and Ruby’s best friend, who happens to be black, to get frozen yogurt, Ruby piped up from the backseat: “Mom, do you want to hear a really bad story, a story that happened to her mom? Go on; tell her.”
“I don’t want to tell her,” her friend said.
“Tell her!” Ruby urged again.
“No, honey, she doesn’t have to tell me anything she isn’t comfortable with,” I said. “We don’t make people share stories they don’t want to share.”
“You can tell her,” Ruby’s friend said to Ruby. “I just don’t want to tell her.”
“OK,” Ruby said, with an energy that came, I suspect, from the righteous anger of a 9-year-old minus the weariness that accompanies being the actual subject of systemic racism.
“Her mom was riding her bike and some people said to her, ‘Get out of here.’ And called her the N-word. And said she was in the wrong neighborhood.”
I felt like this was a moment in which I really didn’t want to say the wrong thing and yet I also had absolutely no idea what the right thing to say was. Is there even a right thing to say?
I finally just went with the absolute truth: “I am so sorry that happened to your mom. That’s terrible, and it makes me sick that that kind of thing is still happening at all.”
Sympathy isn’t enough. And silence in the face of injustice is complicity, I know that, but is silence better or worse than saying a wrong but well-intended thing? (Obviously, silence is better than saying a wrong and hateful thing, but most of the people who are inclined to say wrong and hateful things seem quite determined to say them.) As a white person who’s aware enough to acknowledge white privilege, to understand that I won’t ever fully understand, I’m often paralyzed by overthinking. I have black friends who have been hurt by white silence after various racially charged incidents. I have other black friends who have been hurt by white people chiming in as though they have something unique to add to the situation from a non-black perspective. I usually spend so much time trying to decide what to say and how best to say it, how to say it in a way that conveys my passion while grasping the limitations of my perspective, that by the time I feel ready to speak up, the moment has passed.
But in this very specific, very personal instance that was related to me in the comfort and privacy of my minivan, I didn’t really have to think in a “global context,” only a human one. I don’t know that I responded in the “best” way; I responded in the only way that made sense to me in my gut. Should I have expressed my anger more than my sadness? Should I have said something more about the insidious and pervasive nature of racism? I don’t know, honestly.
But then I said something that also felt right: “I really think that your generation is going to change things, girls. I know that your generation hates injustice and wants to change the world for the better. And if you keep standing up for what’s right, all three of you, I really think and hope that things will get better.”
That might not be true at all. I obviously have no way to know if it’s true. But it, at least while I was saying it, certainly felt true.
Maybe I’m an optimist after all.