“They called me…” Shawna cut off, placing her head in her hands and sobbing.
“It’s okay,” Ashley replied, extending her arms. Shawna accepted the embrace. “They’re just stupid kids.”
I sipped water from the drinking fountain as I witnessed the exchange. I took another quick sip, released the steady stream of cool water, and wiped a few droplets off my chin.
“What’s wrong?” I asked Ashley.
“Oh,” Ashley started in an exasperated tone. “Some stupid kids drove past Shawna and shouted the ‘N’ word at her.”
“That’s juvenile,” I responded. “I’m sorry, Shawna.”
“Thanks,” Shawna pushed away from Ashley’s motherly embrace.
“Is that all they did?” I further inquired. The sobbing, to me, seemed a bit over the top for a college student, if all they did was shout a derogatory name at her; even one as pernicious as that particular racial slur. I’ve frequently had nasty things shouted at me while running alongside the road.
“What do you mean?” Shawna asked, the creases at the edges of her lips deepening.
“I’m just curious,” I said slowly.
“Did something else have to happen to make it a big deal?” she replied with a somewhat rhetorical question.
“Well, if all they did was call you a name, then I’m sure you can just let it roll off your shoulder,” I replied. “After all, they don’t know anything about you and nearly everyone on the planet despises such antics. So, what does it matter?”
Shawna’s face contorted. Her lips turned down further, forehead creased, brows scrunched up, and eyes narrowed. Her entire countenance became angry. Ashley stood aghast at my premise.
“You don’t know what it feels like,” she shot at me. “You’ll never know what it means to be black! You’re no better than a racist!”
She whipped around and stomped off. Ashley followed suit. I watched them leave, confused at their outrage towards me.
My mind instantly reflected on several experiences from my adolescence. I remembered the many ways “white” was used as a derogatory epithet to describe athletic performance. I remembered feeling awkward about being white whenever slavery or Jim Crow was discussed in school, even though none of us had either experienced or participated in it. I remembered being chided for listening to anything other than country music, because whites only listen to “hillbilly music”. I remembered being regarded as the easiest target for a beating, simply because I was white.
I walked down the hall, strolling in the opposite direction as Ashley and Shawna. I was lost in thought as I strolled to the exit.
‘Sure, I may never know what it is like to be black. But she does not know what it is like to be blamed over and over and over for slavery or Jim Crow, things none of us know about from personal experience. She does not know what it is like to be looked at as a monstrous racist simply because you are white. She does not know what it’s like to be dismissed as shallow because of an assumption that I live a pampered, privileged life, all based on some supposed privilege attached to my skin tone.’
I exited the building, walking into the cold night air. I marveled at the night sky a moment. My thoughts became clearer.
‘She isn’t white. I’m not black. But why does that even matter? Everyone understands being treated unfairly. That’s just part of life. People sometimes say and do cruel things to each other. Everyone can relate to that.’
Then I heard my own voice.
‘I’m sure I can just let this one roll right off my shoulder.’
I smirked at the thought and continued on my way home. I dismissed the matter entirely.