You Act Like You Think You Know...But You Don’t.
I joined the Navy when I was seventeen years old. When I got to boot camp, I was thrown into a group of eighty other women from all over the country. It was a pretty even mixture of black and white women, all working toward a common purpose: to serve our country and be honorable sailors. During our free time, though, we didn’t really hang out together. We just segregated into the groups we were comfortable with and honestly, that bothered me a little bit. I wanted to know everyone and had a curiosity about other people that knew no bounds.
There was a young black woman in our group that we all affectionately called “Swish” because of the way she walked. She had a swing to her hips and no amount of yelling, marching or push-ups was going to change it. She was outspoken and funny and I liked her a lot. One Sunday after church (and we all went to church because even if you had no religious affiliation, it meant you didn’t have to clean), Swish and I ended up on duty together. It was something terribly exciting, like guarding the hallway, and since I can’t be quiet for longer than 6.7 seconds, I did my best to engage Swish in conversation. I’m not even sure now how the subject came up, but we talked about the division between the whites and blacks in our group. When I mentioned it, Swish just rolled her eyes, but there were things I wanted to know and I knew this was a golden opportunity.
Some of what you are about to read will make my friends of color laugh out loud and quite possibly cringe, but I am determined to be transparent. I told Swish there were a lot of things I didn’t understand about black people and could I just ask her those questions? She said I could and off I went, asking everything I secretly wanted to know, but was too afraid to ask. The list went something like this:
What did the word “nappy” mean and why did the black girls hate to march in the rain? Why was “ashy” skin bad? Did it hurt? Why couldn’t many of them swim? Why were they angry if a white girl liked a black man? Was she afraid of white people? Why didn’t they like us? Did she grow up in a dangerous place? How did she feel about the term “African-American”, which was just starting to become a title? (Let me pause here and say her answer was “My people have been here longer than your Irish ass. I’m an American and I’m black. I don’t need to dress it up.”) In four hours, I asked her every single thing that came to mind and she answered me patiently and honestly. She was a little older than me and probably recognized that I was just some dumbass kid who really wasn’t trying to be offensive. She had the patience of Job.
Of all the things we talked about that afternoon, there is one thing that stands out the most. I asked her why I wasn’t accepted in their group. Clearly, I wasn’t a racist and was trying to be as inclusive and knowledgeable as I could be. Even then, I really loved people and wanted to include everyone in my social circle and be included in theirs, too. Her answer has stayed with me all these years:
“The problem is, no matter how nice you are, you act like you think you know and you don’t. And you never will because you’re not black. Period.”
You act like you think you know.
At the time, this hurt me a little bit. As I’ve matured, I realize she wasn’t trying to hurt me, she was simply stating the truth. I’ve applied her statement to most people in my life, no matter their skin color. You might think you know what another person is experiencing, but the bottom line is, unless you’re walking in their shoes, you do not. I have never been black. I have never been married to a black person, nor do I have biracial children. So even with all my deep love and general acceptance of most people, I do not know. I have to accept that as fact; humble myself and understand that I am privileged whether I acknowledge it or not.
Change is coming and we must be part of the answer, not the problem. I am grateful for people like Swish who have let me ask my questions – no matter how ignorant – and helped me to see life through their eyes. I am hopeful that my genuine love for people will buy me some grace and that I will be forgiven for the questions that may seem stupid or obvious. Like Swish said, “I don’t know”. I am ready to learn, though. I am willing to be humble, listen with intention and stand up for equality for all people, no matter their skin tone, religious beliefs or sexual orientation. I may not know, but I am willing to learn. That is, at least, a start.