When my mom dropped me off at school one morning my sophomore year in high school, we could never have predicted that hours later, a police officer would be escorting me back to the car.
I'm telling this story in an attempt to understand what I have witnessed this week. I realize that no matter how much I write, question or attempt to empathize, I will never be able to fully understand what racism means because I will never experience it firsthand. I have never been judged for the color of my skin or a victim of discrimination and therefore have no way of feeling or defining it. But I also don't believe that should stop me from trying so here I am, trying.
The first time I remember being confronted with the concept was age 15, which I understand is a significant entitlement itself. It began as a good day. I had been nominated to attend an off-site leadership conference with about 100 other students from my school, and I was excited. We loaded a bus and were taken to community center in town.
After arriving and gathering for a keynote speaker, we were divided into smaller groups for breakout sessions. I remember being separated from my friends, and placed as the only underclassman in my group. For our first activity we were taken into a room and seated in a circle, where the presenting teacher pulled out a colorful bag of deflated balloons and handed one to each of us.
He then explained that this was an exercise in public speaking, and that we were to each take turns standing and making a case to the group of why our color balloon was the best. I looked down at mine. It was white, and I felt defeated. White, seriously? Why couldn't I get ocean blue or sunshine yellow or heart red. What even is white? All that came to mind was toilet paper.
As the others began taking turns and I knew that toilet paper wasn't going to cut it, I racked my brain for ideas and finally came up with a wedding dress. Wedding dresses were white. I specifically imagined the wedding dress of my sister, who had been married just a few months before.
When it was my turn, I stood, conjured an image of the dress in my mind, and awkwardly made my case. "Hi, I'm Katie. Um, I have white. White is the best color, because...it's like, clean and pure and can be really beautiful."
And that was that. We shuffled through a few more sessions, ate our boxed lunches and were bused back to school in time to attend our final two classes. Shortly before the end of the day, my teacher approached and said I had been asked to pack my things and report to the front office.
If I was confused when I arrived, I was even more confused when I was escorted into the principal's office, and downright shocked when I walked in to see a police officer waiting for me. Honestly, my first thought was that someone in my family had died and they were there to deliver the news. My hands started shaking as I sat in the chair.
The principal reassured me that I wasn't in trouble, but said there had been an "incident" at the conference that day. Incident? I looked around, certain they had called up the wrong person.
He went on to explain that someone in my breakout group had interpreted the description of my balloon as racially motivated (say what), and that by the time we returned to campus a plan had been hatched to rough me up on the way home from school. Another student had overheard and reported it to a teacher, prompting the administration to contact authorities.
I was gobsmacked. My mom was called to pick me up, and when she arrived the officer escorted me to her car. I stayed home the next day, too scared to attend, and for a long time after that my heart pounded when I passed students in the hallway, wondering if they had been part of the plan to hurt me.
That experience would become a defining moment in my understanding of racism. What was initially a feeling of defensiveness eventually gave way to an awareness that perspective is not just about what we see, but where we're seeing it from.
All I could see that day was a balloon. But another person, from where they sat, could see race; and a host of other things I couldn't see. They may have seen memories of hate they had felt or slurs they had heard; opportunities denied, privileges rebuffed or the pain of those who had gone before them. And when they saw it it hurt them so badly that they wanted to hurt me. And for that, I am so sorry.
Last night, I watched the riots from the perspective of my living room, and not from inside them. I saw the pain and pressure explode like an overinflated balloon. And while I can't defend the looting or burning down of local businesses, I also believe that these things happen for a reason. As much as I detest the violence, I also desperately want to understand where it's coming from. What do they see that I don't see? What have they felt that I can't feel?
"I think America must see that riots don't develop out of thin air...But in the final analysis a riot is a language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?" (Martin Luther King, 1967)