Editor’s note: *The writer of this viewpoint has chosen to change the subject’s name due to the sensitive nature of the material.
I am writing you to tell you what I could not say when I saw you across the street, on the steps of the Michigan Union. We crossed paths during our freshman year of college, which was 11 years after our separation. I want to tell you exactly who I am, considering that in the past we were both confused on my meaning to the world — you said that I was a “nigger,” and I thought that you might be right.
We were nine-years-old and in the fourth grade. We were on our way to our elective class when you asked, “Brittany, do you know that you are a nigger?” That was a day I will never forget and I wonder if you remember it—if at all—for the same reasons that I do.
When you told me what I meant to you, I found it more useful to analyze your motives rather than your specific message. I went to bed that night thinking about what kind of conversation your parents had with you about my race. Moreover, I was hurt that you did not consider how I would like to be identified. My concern at nine-years-old is still the same for me at the age of 21: “Why was I not given the opportunity to speak for myself?”
I wonder, at exactly what age do children come to understand the meaning of race? This leads me to ask, at what age do children’s interracial friendships become strange? Is this question different from thinking about the age at which some white children are told that black children are niggers?
Fundamentally, I want to know at what point in your nine-year-old life did you begin to doubt I was your equal?
Since you seemed off-put when you saw me during our freshman year of college, I’m interested to know if the way our friendship ended affected you as much as it affected me. I assume that it did, not only because of your noticeably distant disposition when I bumped into you later on campus — face-to-face — but because you “de-friended” me on Facebook not long after you saw me.
I want you to know that your perception of me at nine-years-old was not your fault. At the time, the deterioration of our friendship was more reflective of race in America than it was a representation of your character.
As a self-identified Italian-American, what would you do? I hope you understand that having the strength to empathize and appreciate the experiences of people with a different race than your own is important. The world listens when you speak, but the world questions if I can. Will you speak with me so that I, too, can be heard?
I am asking you to be my ally. I am currently negotiating my place in the world. I am searching for a seat of influence that would impact the types of questions that race in our country has left me curious to understand, and I could benefit from your bargaining power. So, although you speak of the glass ceiling, that same ceiling often feels concrete to me.
Stand beside me to make the types of changes that Susan B. Anthony and Eleanor Roosevelt made for you (e.g. the right to work, vote and co-ed education). Let’s further the advocacy work of the former Black Panther, Kathleen Cleaver, with the right to access birth control, and that of First Lady Michelle Obama’s concerning healthy living. These issues affect all of our lives, and our nation’s future.
I am asking that you reconsider stereotypes and be open to believing that my race may be different from what you think we are, and what you think we can become. I am asking you to think critically about the words that you use and the decisions that you make — most of which have the potential to affect the lives of people in the nation you care the most about: America.
Altogether, I am asking that you help me provide other girls in our country with the friendship that we never had.
Brittany A. Smith
Brittany Smith is a LSA senior.