By Dawn Onley
A white boy around 11 years old, who lived a block away, called me the “N” word one summer day. I told him to shut up, but when he used it again, I told him he was talking about himself.
He stared at me as if he could spit and then he said: ““If Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t have freed you, you’d be picking cotton in my backyard right now.”
I hadn’t done anything to him. I had simply rode my bike up his street, in the way that carefree, 13-year-old girls do, and he wanted me to know he wasn’t fond of that.
“Stay on your own block,” he said.
He wasn’t a stranger; I had played ball with him before. He had a bad temper, which usually flared when he lost at something, and he was the neighborhood bully. It was the first time he had hurled racist language my way.
His words surprised and then stung me, but I wasn’t scared of him and I was too angry to cry. I looked up the street to see if anyone was out. I didn’t see anyone. Not trusting that I could physically beat him and not seeing help in case I couldn’t, I made a calculated decision to ride away as he walked across the street approaching me. I heard his laughter and taunts as I pedaled towards home.
He became a police officer. I think about him sometimes and wonder what he would say to me today if I saw him again; whether he still harbors the same feelings as he’s out patrolling the streets. Whether he remembers. It’s something I could never forget.
Racism, like all other forms of hatred, is a learned behavior. Kids aren’t born racist. At his young age, it is likely he heard a family member use the “N” word, for him to use it with such ease. It’s likely he heard someone turn the phrase “picking cotton in my backyard” before he uttered it.
It was a nasty experience for sure, but far from the only racist encounter I experienced as a child or young adult. There was my piano teacher’s mom who shouted racist epithets at me during one piano practice. There was the time I covered a Ku Klux Klan rally as a young reporting intern. There were tons of racial jokes over the years — from classmates to colleagues — which were usually said from the comfort of a majority perch, sometimes even a supervisory one.
We are all shaped, in part, by our experiences – good and bad. There are learning opportunities from both as well. The key is to use negative experiences to strengthen our resolve. To go through the pain without allowing the pain to go through us.
I believe the key is to forgive often, and to never forget that love is the antidote to hate. Especially during the times when love is the hardest thing to do.
As long as we all know who we are, who cares that a little 11-year-old boy couldn’t see the divine within me, and the demon within himself? His words hurt, but they could never stop me from becoming who I was destined to become. They could never dim the light within my spirit.
It’s been more than 50 years since Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Racial progress has been made, there’s no doubt. But changing a person’s heart is a tougher thing to measure. Only God knows a person’s heart, although we get glimpses of it, from time to time.
From each of my negative experiences I learned that it didn’t matter what I was called. What mattered was what I call myself.
A child of God.