RACE / CREATIVE NON-FICTION
I Didn’t Know How to Respond to Her Internalized Racism
“When I was a child, I was taught that if a white person shakes your hand, it will change your life forever.”
Hearing her voice in my memory makes me cringe because I know how I responded and wish I could go back in time to change it somehow. I wish I could communicate something to her about my people, but my knowledge of my own language seems to have failed me in her presence.
She had carefully considered each word, as always, communicating beautifully in a language she’d learned from scratch over a period of just a few months. Quite capable of changing her own life, she needed no white person’s handshake.
Her devastating words came with a charming smile and no indication that she found this horrible childhood lesson of racism problematic. The global harm of colonization and its white supremacist ideals had become so normalized, it had been distilled into her nursery rhymes as cute and child-appropriate, just as it had my own childhood books and movies.
Hearing this story that she’d been told, from the removed perspective of us each being foreign to the other, it was easier for me to see how insidious this mythology of my people was to her. Instead of a handshake or a discussion on internalized racism, I just offered her a hug in response to what she’d shared. She accepted with a laugh. It’s a moment that hurts my heart to remember.
The truth is that I don’t have a better response all these years later. I ran into her sometime in the middle of the Pandemic. She somehow recognized me, despite my rainbow mask, short hair, and gender change. In what feels like an act of cowardice, I didn’t make any reference to the story she’d told me about her childhood, but I couldn’t think of much else as we stood across from each other, both masked in the store where we’d come to pick up supplies.
I didn’t have the courage to tell her that my name had changed either. I just pretended everything was the same with me and listened as she told me about her life. It hadn’t changed nearly as much as she deserved, given all of her hard work.