“Don’t Ever Look a White Person in the Eye”
A Black friend told me that she went to a gathering of Black folk, a kind of reconnecting/empowerment gathering. Someone there told her they are afraid to look White people in the eye. This stuck me so deeply, tears came to my eyes. I knew I had stumbled on a thread to the pervasive and deadly social segregation that we experience in this culture across color lines.
Two days later I was fortunate to be at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Eugene/Springfield Chapter (NAACP) 40th Annual Freedom Fund Dinner and Silent Auction. I met Geneva Craig, Executive Member of AARP and one of the speakers. She was absolutely wonderful and you can do an internet search on her and see what she learned from Dr. King: she was a teen living in Selma, Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement. Her speech was impassioned and inspiring.
So let me digress just a little bit here. I have a passion for social justice that is as big as my heart, and as my friends will tell you, that’s pretty big. I am deeply grateful for all that I have inherited from people who worked so hard to get us where we are today. I will be the first to tell you that we have a long way to go, but millions of people have worked very hard so that Black people can walk in the front door, so that it’s not widely accepted to call black people derogatory names, and, (to go one step back further in history) so that we do not have the legal right to own another person. Colorism is not just about Black people, of course, but the blacker you are, the harder it is to dodge the persistent racism that is still alive and kicking in this country.
So, back to the main story; I was fortunate to be at this NAACP event. I met Geneva Craig in the lobby where she was hanging out with a friend; we had a nice chat about how she loved everything about Medford. (Another digression, it’s hard for me to believe a person could love *everything* about anywhere, including Medford, but that’s what she said.) I really enjoyed connecting with her and absolutely loved her effusive and warm personality.
She was the first speaker of the evening. She was alive, engaging, dynamic, and somatic. It was a pleasure to watch her speak and engage with the audience. She told us that when she was a teenager, Dr. King told her she needed to exercise PATIENCE. She indicated in body, word , and spirit that this did not go over so well to her 17-year-old self, but she has learned over time the wisdom of his words.
During Geneva Craig’s presentation, she shared that growing up she and her peers were specifically taught to “know their place;” to never be “uppity;” to look at their feet, or the White person’s feet when interacting with White people: to never look a White person in the eye. My friend’s words came back to haunt me. This time I did not just tear up, I cried.
The relationship between Black folk and White folk remains occluded with the distress we have inherited along lines of oppression, trauma, and separation. If you give it just a casual glance, it’s not hard to see how Black people are still being oppressed; this has been well documented in research. It takes more than a casual glance to see the roots inside of us and pull them out. It is possible to clean this up, as long as we keep working on our relationships. That’s why I do the Liberation Listening work, and that’s why I say relationships matter.