This post is quite different from my normal writing here. I’m not changing my strategy or trying to cause controversy. I hope the purpose of these words will become clear as you read. And like everything I write, I hope these words will bring life to you.
We share a last name. She married into it; I married out of it. But still, one of the shooting victims of the Charleston shooting, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and I share a last name.
We share many other things in common, too. She was a minister on staff at the church where she was shot; I also worked at a church for a couple of years. She was a runner and ran track in high school and college. I also am a runner who ran track in high school. She had three children—same number as me. She loved Jesus; I love Jesus.
But here’s what we didn’t share: the color of our skin, the privilege of being white, or the hatred against being black. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and I experienced life completely differently through no fault or effort of our own.
I remember the first time I met a black person with the same last name as me. I was living just outside of Atlanta, Georgia, at the time. Maybe we’re related, I had joked, since nothing but our name would indicate as much. Later, I began to think about surnames, about where they come from, how they are passed down. I was young, naive. I thought it was terribly coincidental that many black families in the south would end up with the same last name as a few white families in the north. Strangely coincidental, I thought as I got a little older. Likely not coincidental at all, I soon learned.
In “Recollections of My Slavery Days” written in 1922 by William Henry Singleton, he talks about how he received his surname, how differently he received it than I did. “Although I was born black and a slave, I was not all black,” he writes. “My mother was a colored woman but my father was the brother of my master. I did not learn this until some years later. It caused me much trouble. They were a high, proud family, the Singletons. My master’s estate was one of the largest in Craven county, North Carolina, and he had more slaves than any other planter thereabouts.” But being the son of a white man was not how William Henry Singleton got his name.
“I had nobody that I called father. I only knew my mother. Her name was Lettis Singleton. All the slaves on a plantation had the same name as their master. The slaves on Singleton’s plantation, for instance, were known as Singleton’s men and women. John Winthrop had a plantation adjoining ours and all the slaves on that plantation were called Winthrop’s slaves. When a plantation changed owners the slaves changed their names. Our plantation had formerly been owned by a Mrs. Nelson, a widow. The slaves were then known as Nelson’s slaves. When Singleton married Mrs. Nelson he succeeded to the plantation and all of the slaves, including my mother, were called from that time on Singleton.”
I hadn’t thought much about the black Singletons of the south lately. I’m a Craig now, and I’m learning to identify as such. But when I saw the name of my sister, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, among the victims of the Charleston shooting, I couldn’t help but believe she died instead of me precisely for some of the same reasons we might share a last name.
I don’t know what it’s like to be black in America. I can barely imagine what it was like for the black members of a church to welcome in a young white man into their Bible study only to be murdered by him. I can’t understand how the accumulation of police shootings and racial profiling and systemic injustice and now this, how the accumulation has become almost too much to bear. How many black people feel threatened and endangered and misunderstood.
“The level of terror that black people feel in America at this moment cannot be underestimated,” Austin Channing wrote in a blog post called “The Only Logical Conclusion.” “Because when the driving force of such a massacre is the very thing imbedded in the roots of America, thriving on the branches of generation after generation, sitting in the pews unchallenged every Sunday morning in white churches—there is no reason why black Americans should feel safe.”
I’ve never felt this sort of threat to my life, to my family, to my people. But Austin does, many people do. I have friends and relatives and clients and colleagues who are black. I can only imagine that they feel threatened this way, too.
I don’t understand it. But I believe it.
And I feel compelled to do something, anything, about it.
But it has to start here: I am white. I, too, have been judged by my skin color, and the judgment has fallen in my favor. I have been given privileges and advantages and the benefit of the doubt not because I am smart or beautiful or hard-working but because I’m white. I live more securely, more freely, and more hopefully because I received my surname from my ancestors, not my ancestors’ owners. And I am less scrutinized, less derided, and less likely to end up on welfare or in prison simply because my parents and their parents and my grandparents’ parents were all white.
Racism still exists in America. I know it because I have benefited from it. Not because I have told racist jokes or refused to have clients who are black or intentionally moved to a white neighborhood and attend a white church. Racism still exists in America because I am white and that has made a huge difference in my life. Not once I have been accused of playing “the race card,” yet the trajectory of my entire life is different because of the race card I’ve been playing my whole life without even realizing it.
The greatest irony of racism in America is that though it often is characterized as a black and white issue, it’s far from it. Who can say what role religion and gender and geography and education play in the issues of race? How can we identify the effects of generational poverty, disproportionate incarceration, and illegal immigration when they become so intertwined with race? And why can’t we just believe each other when we say we are hurting or confused or ignorant about this issue? Can’t we just start there?
I don’t normally write posts like this. I don’t. I’m not a fan of stirring the pot or fanning the flame. I don’t shy away from discussing hard topics, but I normally have those conversations one on one. But today, something hit me that I never considered before. It started with something my friend Deidra Riggs said on Facebook.
“Three years ago, when Trayvon Martin was killed, I remember being so amazed by the silence. No one asked me about it. No one mentioned his death to me. No one outside of my family raised the subject at all. Not at church. Not at work. Not in the grocery store. Not on the Christian radio stations I listened to at the time (which, for me, may have been the beginning of the end of listening to Christian radio). Yesterday, my phone kept buzzing with email messages, voxes, texts, and FB messages — all of them about the nine people murdered in a church in Charleston, SC. I have to believe three years of many people working to raise awareness of racism in America helped make it easier for people to reach out, this time. … Silence probably would have pushed me right over the edge.”
Silence would have pushed her over the edge … so to reach out to my friend and keep her from falling, I need to stand up and speak. I’ve thought for too long that racism wasn’t an issue I could talk freely about without offending my black and brown friends. In fact, I have been afraid to use “black” and “brown” when describing my friends, and I’m still hoping that these words aren’t offensive. But what I never understood until today is that my black and brown friends are more offended by my silence. They are more offended because when I don’t acknowledge their pain, it’s like saying I don’t care. And they’re most offended when I remain totally unaware of the issue.
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton died yesterday because racism still exists in America. So did Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Myra Thompson, and Daniel Simmons.
Racism still exists in America, and I want to do something about it. I just hope you’ll believe me.
Photo by Kris Camealy, used with permission.