One night after dinner, we were all sitting around chatting, and an elderly aunt mentioned that she rarely went into the nearby city because there were too many black people living there. The place was being taken over by them. The Blacks, she said, angrily as if it were a curse word.
I sat there looking down at my plate during this tirade, not knowing what to say, so utterly uncomfortable that I think I started sweating. Maybe only a few minutes went by and then someone changed the subject and we all went on to talk about other things.
But I replayed the exchange, such as it was, in the years after. Should I have said anything? What would I say? This was my aunt, someone I had always loved and admired and respected. Was it worth getting into a discussion with her? I only saw the woman occasionally. Why have a confrontation? It's not like I could change her mind. Why hurt her feelings or make her feel uncomfortable?
So I let it go. As I have let other things go over the years, for the sake of family or neighborly harmony. Because I don't like being confrontational. Because I want to be "kind." Because, honestly, it is easier to not get into it with other people who feel differently from you.
There's a picture most of us have seen before. A young black woman wearing sunglasses, holding school books, walking through a crowd of angry white people. It was 1957, three years after Brown v The Board of Education ruled that segregated schools were against the law, but Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, still did not allow black students to attend. It took an order from President Eisenhower and the National Guard to force the governor of the state to agree to let nine black students enroll.
The young woman in the iconic photo is fifteen year old Elizabeth Eckford. She was accidentally separated from her group and found herself alone in the mob.
But sometimes I ask myself who I would be if I'd lived back then.
Not Elizabeth Eckford, because I have never been in a position where I have been surrounded by a crazy mob. I have never been courageous like her. I have never been a hero.
I know that I would not be the angry yelling white girl behind Elizabeth, or the laughing jeering people, or the scowling scary ladies. I know this because I have never hated or feared or felt I was superior to people who are different from me.
So who would I be?
That night, at the table with my aunt, I wonder what would have happened if I had challenged her. Not argued or tried to change her mind, but simply spoken up.
Said, I don't agree with you. This is not how I feel.
I have no idea how this response would've been received. Maybe my aunt would've felt uncomfortable.
But is this so terrible? Then we could be equal at the table together, sharing our discomfort.
I regret my silence that night. And I have a great many other regrets this week, after this particular election,
for all the times when I remained silent in the presence of bullying and bigotry, when I laughed uncomfortably at sexist jokes, when I made excuses for or minimized racism.
I understand now who I've been and what I've done. I was the person who walked somewhere in the background of a photograph not so firmly in the past after all,
the person who saw the crowd gathering, and crept away.