Today, I decided to enroll in a Road Scholar conference in Alabama on civil rights. This is a momentous occasion in my life. My relationship with America's history of slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration and ongoing struggles with systemic racism continues to challenge my well-being.
It is a challenge because I have not made progress on my level of understanding — and therefore peace eludes me. I remain troubled and triggered every time another racist incident is reported. I am especially despaired when the incident ends in the death of another black man. I never expect to have peace about these travesties; I do desire peace from which to act.
There is a part of me that cries out for recognition of our collective pain. My dear non-black friends and family members, associates and colleagues, can you see how tragic our African American history has been and continues to be?
I think my greatest resentment is the general tone I hear from people: “Why do we have to keep dredging up the past?” This question belies the deep ignorance and indifference to the current experience of my tribe. The past is still repeating itself. And the hard truth is, I too have a deep ignorance and some indifference to the current experience of my tribe. I must better understand where we’ve come from to better understand where we are now.
I was raised by a mother who was light skinned and who tried to teach us elocution and manners that she believed would make us less “black.” I remember how she cried when I came home with an afro in sixth grade. It was 1971, and being black and proud was the soundtrack and the mantra of the day. She said, “Why would you want to look like a n*****?” She herself had taken on the hateful name and thought that the pigment of my skin could be erased by acting more “white.”
When I was in college, my manner of speech and demeanor confused my fellow black students. I was from the Silicon Valley, they from the likes of Philly, The Bronx and Detroit. They asked me, “What are you? You look like us, but don’t talk or act like us.” They presumed I was ashamed of my heritage, but it was not shame as much as training and ignorance. I was trained to never use slang or colloquialisms, and I was kept away from folks who were relaxed in their words and expression. My older siblings moved seamlessly between the two styles, but I did not.
At my private Jesuit university, we had a black professor who was not given tenure, and there was an outcry and demonstration from the Black Student Union (BSU). I was a member of the BSU, but I don’t recall that I protested. I did think he was a good professor, but because I had limited experience of oppression growing up in Campbell, California, I did not presume race as a driving force. I was ignorant and indifferent to the experience of my tribe.
My experiences of my race/skin came in several subtle but deeply felt vignettes. One was a fellow song leader in high school who couldn’t let me come to her house because her parents believed I was unclean and doomed to Hell because of my skin. Another was a person who genuinely wanted to know if I had a tail (in 1973!). I was so shocked by the question, I walked away without any response to him.
My parents chose neighborhoods where the people were predominately white, so I went to high school where there were only four of us out of 1,100 students. My best friend was from Mexico, and she was outnumbered in a similar way in the early '70s. I was — and still am — aware of the brutality both of my brothers experienced being black men who were handsome and proud. One brother came home bloodied by a crow bar beating from men who said he didn’t know his “place.” The other came home from Vietnam and was devastated that his service there diminished him even further rather than lifting him up in our society. I didn’t see that their experience was part of a system that made it happen too often. At some level, I knew about racism, but I didn’t live with it as an everyday occurrence. I could conveniently forget history because I was sheltered from constant reminders.
As I matured and worked in High Tech, I became more aware of the system that was geared to make the experience of women and people of color a greater trial than that of their peers. I began to see the connection between my gender and my race in some of my experiences. One interviewer stated as a compliment, “You are very different than other people like you.” I later understood that I made him more comfortable because I was more familiar. I began to realize the plight of my brothers and sisters who expressed themselves with speech and style of a black culture. I began to recognize that black culture in the city, suburb, rural and southern part of the U.S. were unique in some characteristics.
I began to look for my place and celebrate and accept the gifts and the challenges of having more melanin in my skin. I have had wonderful success in my life and often find myself in rooms where there is no one or just a couple of people who look like me. More and more I am seeking rooms where I am not in the minority.
All these experiences and stories and so many more have made me who I am today. Mostly, healthy, mostly proud of my heritage and mostly hopeful. I still have a rage running like a stream inside my heart about the treatment of my ancestors and the current treatment of our people. In too many places where there are concentrations of black people there is poverty, there is pollution, there is limited opportunity, there are check-cashing stores and other predatory businesses. These things don’t exist because blacks caused them, they exist because the society we have built exploits them. I am ready to understand more about the roots of our collective disability as a nation. We are disabled because we have a whole body of people who continue to be excluded from fundamental safety, security and freedom.
So I will attend the Road Scholar Civil Rights Conference to learn, to acknowledge and to honor those who have come before. To sit with modern civil rights leaders and “get proximate” with mass incarceration. To sit with Jim Crow survivors and understand its legacy. It’s time to face the truth, the complicated rich history of how my tribe has been demanding civil rights for nearly two centuries.
I want to be part of the solution of an integrated, peaceful society. I must face one of the main pathways that brought us to where we are today. I will walk across that bridge.
About the Author
Christie Hardwick is founder and curator of Inspiration Gatherings, an executive coach and an ordained minister. Christie is an American Leadership Forum Senior Fellow and faculty member. For five years, she served on the Women’s Leadership Board at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Christie is spending most of her 60th birthday year on sabbatical in Italy with her wife Jane. They will return at the end of 2019 for the next chapter in their adventure.