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©2017 Kella Hanna-Wayne. 

Open Me: How a Kid's Kind Holiday Gesture Turned My World Upside Down

February 3, 2019

 

CN: in-depth discussion of racism including specific examples of macro and microaggressions and of the effects of racism on emotional and mental wellbeing. Mention of Nazis and police brutality. 

When you publish work submitted by external writers, you wait for the piece that leaps out at you, that you know as soon as you read it that it needs to be read by other people. Clarity’s guest post today looks at how racism is so insidious, it creeps into situations and actions that a white person would never think twice about, and provokes a sense of life-consuming threat, regardless how kind or innocent the intention of the original gesture was. Clarity’s piece was one I knew I needed to publish the second I read it. 

“What a sad era when it is easier to smash an atom than a prejudice.” –Albert Einstein
 
If you opened your door, during the holiday season, to see a nondescript envelope marked “Open Me” neatly tucked into a crevice, what would be your reaction? If you were a person who was trusting of your environment, you would probably close the door and open the envelope, obviously thinking it was a nice gesture from one of your neighbors. And you would expect me or anyone else to do the same, right?
 
No; unfortunately, in this instance, you would be wrong.
 
The above scene greeted me one Sunday afternoon as the 2018 holiday season gathered steam. Little did I know how much the tiny, blue envelope would serve to truly ‘open me’ in unexpected ways. 
 
However, my reaction was quite the opposite from the expected one. I immediately tossed the envelope as far away from me as I could, suspiciously glancing around as I slammed the door shut. Instead of bringing it into my house I put it in a Ziplock bag. After conferring with my family, I placed it next to the garbage can in the garage in case I needed it for evidence later. Why, you ask, would a person react this way amid a season of gifts and giving?
 
Over the past two years, we have been treated to a steady drone of news and stories maligning people who look like me and my family. I am Black, of Caribbean descent and my husband and daughter are African-American. When I opened the door to find a baby, blue envelope declaring “Open Me”, delivered from someone in my 99 percent white community, I panicked. We are the only Black family in the neighborhood. I did not want to become another news story of people like us who were targeted for our 'otherness.' 
 
Were we about to become a statistic?
 

 

If you lived in a neighborhood where you were the only one who looked like you; you were called the N word and the B word on your way to the post office; your daughter was told she looked like a monster in school because of her dreadlocked hair; where kids on your daughter’s school bus talked nonchalantly about the need for Nazis to go after Black people to kill them; where your husband was made to feel he needed identification while taking a walk just outside his house—-maybe you could understand and sympathize with my extreme reaction to the ‘open me’ envelope situation.
 
Don’t get me wrong, there are people in my community who are nice and respectful, but this does not alleviate the profound sense of isolation my family feels. 
 
Our neighborhood is new and our family was one of the first inhabitants. We decided to buy a house in a still-developing community because we thought it would be easier than moving into one of the established, mostly white areas. The thought was that if we were one of the first to establish roots in the new space, those coming after us would respect this fact. However, this idea has not held out and whenever we walk around the community some people still think we are the newcomers.
 
When we first arrived in the neighborhood there were no lights, the roads were unpaved and there were open stretches of undeveloped properties as far as the eye could see. Today, it is a thriving community, but we remain the only brown family in the mix. 
 
After living in the community for five years, I was forced to homeschool my child for her health and wellbeing due to bullying at school. The effects of the stress from persistent prejudice and bigotry, delivered by both macro and microaggressions, made it difficult to trust our surroundings. Since we were transplanted here by a long-term job opportunity, which went away shortly after the 2008 financial crisis, we were hemmed in. With the job gone, we were left holding a brand-new mortgage and forced to hang in for the ride, in a community that felt more and more alien.
 
The sudden arrival of the blue envelope in this environment dropped like a hot cake. It bothered me so much I tossed and turned that night in bed as I thought about its contents. Shortly after, I contacted the few people who befriended me in the neighborhood to ask if they sent it. After a few declined, I decided I would call the cops if I did not get an answer by the following day.

 

 

My fear of being targeted for being different escalated each hour that passed. The few neighbors who I contacted were the ones who had bothered to get to know me. They understood the context for my distress and let me know they heard me. They sympathized with my angst considering the many hate-filled stories directed at people of color recently. 
 
By the end of the next day, I learned it was a neighborhood kid who wanted to share Xmas joy with his neighbors. I felt relieved but faced the fact that I am obviously traumatized from the onslaught of hate. Incidences of police brutality, attacks by white supremacists, and the numerous online videos of people calling the police on Black folk just trying to live their daily lives are on a daily constant loop in the media. The irrationality and unfairness behind these multiple, bigoted experiences have caused me to be hypervigilant.
 
The ‘envelope’ incident affected me deeply.  It made me rethink and reassess my mindset. I now believe my traumatized reaction was the physical manifestation of a deep, calcified scar within my psyche. The little white boy and his family had no idea that his kind gesture unleashed such a reaction. As far as he and his family were concerned, they were being kind. I am sure they had a restful night compared to my fitful one. Yet, their thoughtful action ripped open a deeply embedded scar leaving me shaken and torn apart.
 
Sadly, I realized a long time ago, the American, white experience, is vastly different compared to the Black or minority of folk in this country who choose to inhabit the suburbs. The difference in skin color affords a comfortable and free lifestyle. I often wonder if the majority in this country will ever truly care to understand how difficult it is to be a person of color in the United States. I assume this situation will be a stretch too far for them to empathize.  Not every action needs to be second-guessed or dissected for deeper meaning, but how could one not with our racially charged experiences in this neighborhood?
 
Over the years, when I expressed our experience to white friends their first reaction was one of disbelief. The usual response was, “Really, here in our town? No way!” However, nowadays, I feel relieved because one only needs to turn on the television or read the news to finally see this country’s dirty laundry regarding race on full display. Finally, perspectives and experiences like mine are plain to see. 

 

 
Yet, denial persists in many corners. The past couple of years has only served to exacerbate this deep scar that lives within people like myself. How are we supposed to trust the motives of the majority in this country when we are constantly told that we are unworthy? That our mere presence is irrelevant?
 
Fortunately, I later learned that other neighbors received the same card tucked in their doors. However, they did not have the same reaction. They accepted it as it was meant to be accepted: a kind, innocent gesture meant to spread holiday cheer. 
 
What does this micro-event in my simple life say about the ramifications of the macro-events with regards to race and privilege playing out across this country in recent times? How and why did it come to this? Is there hope for people like myself? If I feel this way as a grownup how do our children feel? How do I begin to move through such a deeply rooted situation?
 
Meanwhile, I am still on alert and watchful for my family’s safety and protection. The danger is still present and persistent. Just because a certain, blue envelope came from a place of innocence and kindness does not mean others coming after it might be well-intentioned. Nowadays, it is better to be safe than sorry. In these chaotic times, I am reminded of a certain President who once said we must, “Trust, but verify.” 
 
Amen to that.

About the guest blogger: Clarity J spreads love and light daily on Instagram @clarityisjustsohip via her art and writings.

 

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