One reader waited until late in the year to send me the most nakedly racist email I’ve ever gotten. I wrote a column raising questions about the black lead character’s heroism, skill set and romantic appeal in the new Star Wars movie, and on Christmas Eve this gift landed in my inbox: You are a serious [n-word] lover. If you wanna see them fight and kiss just go to the zoo.
The comments are always worse from the ones who think I’m white, I noted abstractly. A white woman talking about these issues is an especially grievous, and perhaps even painful, form of betrayal for some. It’s a bit more insight at a time in our national conversation around race when every little bit counts.
I’m black, by the way.
I began writing this column in January, and for me, it has been a year of writing racially.
Editors suggested I could be a voice on motherhood and popular culture. I thought I might share perspectives on aging. But one colleague said she saw me as something of a “race woman.” I’d written on race in culture and family, but “race woman” is not something I’d ever called myself. I didn’t know if I had that kind of mettle. More to the point, I’m essentially conflict-averse, and little in U.S. life has featured more wrenching, existential conflict than our national race history.
Starting out, I just wanted to be a woman of my times. And looky, looky, how clearly the United States has helped me with that.
I’ve written a column about telephone pranks before caller ID. I’ve considered the parables of free-range parenting and confessed my addiction to energy drinks. But over and over, this was a year of often fatal police confrontations caught on video, and national racial convulsions — and that’s what I’ve written about.
Last Monday, Georgia deputies fatally shot a CNN security guard who had been trying help stabilize his emotionally distressed son. The security guard’s death was one of more than 960 fatal police shootings, and he was the 246th black person killed by police in 2015, according to a Washington Post database.
In a domestic disturbance call Saturday, Chicago police shot and killed a black, emotionally disturbed 19-year-old college student who was holding a baseball bat — and accidentally shot and killed a 55-year-old black mother.
When I speculated on the deeper roots of the Baltimore riots after the death of Freddie Gray, a former U.S. senator emailed me to say: “Your column should engender a national discussion about the societal effects of ignoring poverty and inner city decay.
But another reader wrote: “To advocate violence (which may fall on innocents) as an answer to anything simply should not be tolerated in a civilized society. . . . I will never read anything you write again and I hope you leave the pages of a major American newspaper soon.”
After the video of Toya Graham — the Baltimore mom who slapped her rock-throwing son — went viral, I wrote about the historic reasons black mothers sometimes react to their children with outsized violence.
“I did not view this parent/teen interaction as a “race” thing. I think that’s what bugs me the most about this article,” someone posted on Facebook.
By the time I wrote a column suggesting that white Americans, especially, needed a primer on race, I’d become accustomed to the wildly uneven, middle-finger, defensive-crouch nature of our conversations on anything about race — to the range of insults and praise.
“Thanks so much for your May 11 “Primer on Race,” emailed someone who identified herself as a white, upper-middle-class woman from upper Northwest in the District. “So often white people — my friends — say, ‘My family never owned slaves . . . . As if that was the only way in which we, as members of society, could have participated in/benefited from oppression . . . You are heard!”
But I got this from a man named Jason: “Thanks for doing your part in perpetuating the racial divide in this country.”
A man named Stephen, who called himself a “frustrated white man,” wrote, “the problem is that the urban poor have rejected the white model.”
I’ve written about the reaction of the president of the University of Oklahoma to a white fraternity chanting, “There’ll never be a [n-word] in SAE.” I wrote about segregated swimming pools after the McKinney, Tex., video. I objected bitterly to the power dynamic in police encounters after Sandra Bland. Somewhere in there was Rachel Dolezal, the white woman in Spokane who passed as black and headed her local NAACP; the white lesbian mother who sued a sperm bank after giving birth to a biracial child; and the black book-club women who were escorted off a California wine train for laughing too loudly.
The killing of nine black worshippers inside a South Carolina church by a young white gunman was the most convulsively painful. It sparked roiling debates about Confederate symbols in the public sphere, gun control and the mentally ill.
White supremacy is rotting us from within, I wrote.
“[N-word]ball,” someone tweeted to me after the University of Missouri football team forced the ouster of its president over a series of racial incidents in the fall.
Last month, I wondered why we can’t ever agree what we’re looking at when we’re looking at race. “It’s as if the very lenses of our eyes take sides,” I wrote.
We need to “understand racism as a system built into the foundation of society as opposed to the way we’re taught — that it’s individual acts only committed by some people who are bad,” said Robin DiAngelo, a Seattle-based consultant and former professor of multicultural education.
I was reminded of the 1999 movie “The Matrix”:
What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world.
This year, people have wanted answers from me, and I don’t have any. So I’ll just tell you what I’ve learned. Race writing is not something best done at 30,000 feet, so I try to write at eye level, about how race is lived. About what I tell my son when he asks why there are only 11 white kids at his school, and how I lose my black accent when I’m on the phone with a locksmith, just in case he hasn’t learned to control for unconscious bias.
Sometimes I’ve been clumsy, or missed points I should have made. Race is plate tectonics. We’re all bumping into each other and often don’t even know where the fault lines lie. I’ve often framed my choices as being uncomfortable, causing people who I care about discomfort — or remaining silent — and at various times I’ve chosen each.
I’ve remained silent at times because race is fatiguing and you don’t always want to be that girl. The one who notes that when they give speeches at the office parties, the longest- serving, the highest-ranking, the most legendary among us are often all white, while the ones who clean up after the lights go down will invariably be people of color. And we pretend those two things are not historically related.
I do not discount any brilliance or hard work on anyone’s part; I merely note that arguably the most important factor in someone’s success is that somebody hired them for that job. That they got that loan, got into that school, bought in that neighborhood — and that made all the difference in their lives.
We act like we don’t see these dynamics, or worse, that it’s all okay. Sometimes I go to bed angry from the ache of it, but then I wake up and here we all are still looking at each other, just like we have been since 1619, and none of us are going anywhere.
Isn’t it time we at least try to dig deeper to get it right?
I learned from South Carolina’s James Clyburn, one of the nation’s most powerful congressmen, that people won’t always meet you halfway. That sometimes somebody has to shoulder 80 percent of the work.
I’ve learned this year that I have choices, and sometimes, in order to remain authentic, I’ve chosen to speak up. When I see something, to say something. That hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve tried to accept the challenge. I set out in January to be a woman of my times.
And my times have made me a race woman.
For more by O’Neal, visit wapo.st/lonnae.