My friends at the UN: A reflection on Charlottesville

Seeing the events in Charlottesville, there were many topics that I could have easily written about in response. I could have written about racism, the President’s responses, or the hypocrisy in defending hate speech that leads to real violence against other people. Or, I could have written about the fear that people have existing in this country because of hateful rhetoric. I didn’t want to do that. There is already a plethora of other short-form and long-form articles about these subjects a simple Google (or Duck Duck Go) search away.

Truthfully, I had no plans of writing anything about this at all. Those of you who already are connected to me on social media know what I post about, and my feelings about the situation shouldn’t be any surprise to you. But for some reason, a particular set of memories kept rising to my mind. I want to share these with you all, and I hope you’ll understand why.

Memory One: In 9th grade, sitting on the bleachers with my friends while listening to a Holocaust survivor speak

Our 9th grade history teacher Ms. Andrews helped organize a visit from a Holocaust survivor to speak with several of the classes in our year and give us a better understanding of what actually happened during WWII. I remember our particular speaker told us about how it was like to work at a concentration camp, what it felt like to narrowly escape being gassed (more than once), and the elation of being able to eat a potato after being nearly starved to death.

That day we were allowed to sit wherever we wanted (meaning, we grouped up with our friends). Near the end of her speech/presentation, she made an observation. As she observed all of us sitting before her on the bleachers, she saw a social division that paralleled the division she saw in Europe around the time of the war. Nearly all of the white students were group together on one side, and nearly all of the black students were group together on the other. By chance, me and my friends were sitting in the middle – the self-proclaimed “United Nations” – made up of white, black, Asian and Pacific Islander, Native American, Latino, and other international students. In response to her words, some of the other students were shocked to notice their self-segregation. So were we, as we looked around at our fellow classmates and the stark racial divide among them. Our speaker hoped for unity for our generation, to prevent another Holocaust from ever happening again.

A few of us on 80s day in 10th grade

Memory Two: Talking about college with my stepfather’s aunt, a former dean of UNC Chapel Hill

I remember standing under the car porch speaking with my stepfather’s aunt who was down for a visit. It may have been the summer before I started my undergrad at LSU, or during my first year, and we were talking about the differences between high school and college. One thing I remember is her talking about how it would take some adjusting to get used to being around (and making friends with) people of different backgrounds since LSU is a PWI.

When I told her about the friends I had in high school, there was a notable pause in the conversation. Her mouth opened slightly, and her eyes attempted to hide her shock and confusion. She couldn’t believe, being in the small town where I grew up, that I didn’t only socialize with other black people in my peer group. At this point in her life she was retired, well-off and had traveled the world several times. And yet it was unfathomable that I had a diverse group of friends in high school. My mother and I occasionally talk about this moment.

Memory Three: Sitting in the back of a Lyft on the way back from a kickback in Lincoln Heights

I was talking to my Lyft driver about how I was new to California, and how it differed from being down South. She told me that for a period of two years, she lived in Texas for a job. The culture was too different for her, and she returned to California as soon as she could. Something she noted was that in Texas, everyone seemed so segregated to their own kind – Mexicans, white people, black people. She didn’t see the integration of cultures and people that she saw in California. I told her about my experiences growing up and the multitude of people from different races, genders, and nationalities who I got to know and befriend. For a while, she couldn’t believe that such a thing was possible in the South based on what she had experienced there. I reassured her that what I said was true. I’m still unsure if she’s convinced of the veracity of my statements.

Summer reunion circa 2011 with part of our high school friend group

These three memories are all about the same thing: a reality that mimics what society should be like but is seen as an anomaly in today’s world. The four of us across these memories represent four different generations of people, spread across wide geographical spaces, with widely different life experiences. And yet there is not yet the societal change we would like to see in today’s world.

Me and my group of high school friends were/are not perfect, but I’m glad that I got to know them. We did and said things that would probably make us cringe now, but we were open to learning about each other. We listened to our friend’s struggles and frustrations about getting her green card. When our friend transitioned during high school, we learned about transgender people and LGBTQ issues. Because we were friends, we wanted to learn about and support each other in addition to sharing our interests. It was that simple.

The takeaway?

Who you sit with matters. The conversations and experiences you allow yourself to have matters. The world has not changed as much as you think, so everything that you do still matters. It’s important that you’re genuine about what you do, because paying lip service and continuing on with your terrible beliefs isn’t good for anyone. Neither is having a “token” friend to show how progressive you are. No one needs a fake or performative allyship. We need people who care about our humanity, people who really care.

Remember that.