My Mother was a teen mom way before you could parlay that into a reality TV career. Neither of my parents were college educated or had money growing up and they divorced when I was about 8.
After they split, my Mom moved us into a low-income housing complex in our town. It had a certain reputation. Domino’s wouldn’t deliver to us and my friend’s parents forbid them to visit. I didn’t quite understand it; the place didn’t seem dangerous to me.
I was the only White kid in our section of the neighborhood. I remember noticing it, but not resenting it in any way. I quickly got wrapped up in the goings on and gossip of the neighborhood kids. What was most important to me was being well-liked and having social capital.
We always had extra people staying in the apartment, whether it was a boyfriend or some down-on-their-luck character my mom took in. My grandmother lived with us for a while. An eccentric but unstable young White woman named Wendy was another roommate. There was Doogie, a spiritual Black man who taught me about the teachings of the Tao. Then there was Gibson, an elderly Black man with a drinking problem, eyes clouded with cataracts yet reliably charming. My Mother’s social circle was soon predominantly Black. She started dating Black men. She later remarried a Black man and became a step-mother to his two daughters.
This experience shaped me. The experience of loving the Black and White people I grew up with. The experience of being a “have not” in society. The belief that Blacks and Whites were equal because as far as I could tell, my plight was the same as the other kids in my neighborhood. Plus, my school education left me feeling like this:
I left that apartment complex and went on to have a successful career. That career brought me to live in the three most expensive cities in the U.S. In the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and too many others — I’ve come to realize my experience doesn’t mean shit.
I have been comfortable under the blanket of my experience of growing up among Black people that I have not questioned my role in race issues in a very long time. It was no longer enough to know what’s in my heart. It’s never enough to simply believe that others are equal because the world doesn’t reflect that.
When my Dad got pulled over for drinking and driving while I was in the car, the cop told him to pull off the highway and walk it off. If he had been handcuffed abruptly and tried to wriggle free, would I have grown up without a father?
When I applied to college, my parents and I had no issue getting loans.
My underage drinking charge got reduced to a fine.
I never had to face obstacles due to others’ prejudices against the color of my skin; instead, doors were opened for me. I was mentored. I was noticed as someone with potential.
Thankfully, there are meaningful ways I can help support the Black community and I’m committed to doing the work now. And by the way, it no longer involves arguing with my racist relatives on Facebook, thanks to the wise words of author Ijeoma Oluo.
1. Getting (Re)Educated
Systemic and institutional racism. These terms are volleyed in arguments often but I personally needed a refresher. This video helped me get started. I watched 13th, which exposes the racism in our prison system. On the same topic, I’m reading The New Jim Crow. One infuriating and prime example: Getting caught with 5 grams of crack cocaine carries a minimum sentence of 5 years whereas you'd need to get caught with 100 grams of powder cocaine to get the same sentence. Crack and coke are the same drugs. Crack is a less expensive form and thus found more commonly on the streets in Black communities.
It’s important for any White person -- but particularly Whites who come from a lower socioeconomic status -- to be aware of the oppression, obstacles and all of the contributing factors to systemic racism. Being considered lower class or living in poverty is only one part of the equation; you must be aware of all the ways racism is present in societal systems to understand you are still privileged even as a poor White person.
During my re-education, I learned that people in poverty are more likely to commit crime. I learned what keeps those families, generations and neighborhoods impoverished. I learned that even though crime rates for people living in poverty are essentially equal across race, Black people are incarcerated 6x more. Black men are 3x more likely to get shot than White men by cops. Black men are more likely to be unarmed. You’ll learn that the advent of the phrase “Black-on-Black crime” was developed to fear monger because every race commits more crimes against their own (has a lot to do with proximity) yet we’ve never heard “White-on-White crime” described in the news. And if jail time is avoided, many studies have shown Black job seekers get fewer interviews and lower salary offers.
2. Political Action
Contacting lawmakers. Donating. Protesting. And of course, voting. You know what made me feel better than arguing with my racist grandfather? Emailing every council member in Louisville to urge them to pass Breonna's law, banning no-knock warrants. A few days later, it was unanimously voted in. You know what also made me feel good? Donating to the bail bond for the two Atlanta college students who were ripped from their car and tased during a protest.
I like to find stories that speak to me personally which means I don’t always contribute to the largest organizations. My latest fight involves my home state of Michigan. A man named Michael Thompson is serving 60 years for a non-violent Marijuana charge, which is now legal in the state of Michigan. I called the Governor's office until I got through to leave a comment and am mobilizing others to do the same. Check out Free Michael Thompson to learn more about his case.
3. Start Supporting Black Businesses and Stop Supporting Racist Ones
Is there something I need to buy anyway? I started looking for a Black-owned business that makes it. I wanted a new bathing suit this Summer and found a beautiful brand called Jade Swim. I didn't have to compromise style or my price range -- I had simply never heard of the company before. After learning about the heinous racist culture created by the owner of my favorite sustainable clothing brand, I vowed never to purchase from them. Thanks to the hashtag #BuyBlack on Instagram and Yelp’s Black-owned businesses guide, it’s never been easier to continue this practice as a consumer moving forward.
For me, my upbringing could be classified as “character-building.” For others, I imagine it could feel like trying to escape a pit of quicksand. It’s incumbent on all of us in the privileged majority to start righting the scales, and I hope you will join me in doing the work.
Monica is a creative producer, former social media director, group fitness competitor, and knowledge seeker. She lives in Venice Beach, CA.