I want to share a story. It is a bit of a traumatizing story, so consider yourself warned. It’s the only one you get.
This is a story I haven’t shared with many people and only a close few know the full details. Just thinking about it makes my heart race a little. It’s a topic that has made me sensitive to certain words and situations. I want to share it now, but not for the reasons someone would commonly think. I still don't know how I feel about sharing it publicly. I suppose I want to share to be honest with myself, to show that we all have experiences in our life that greatly affect us and that sometimes you learn new things about those experiences much later in life. If you are willing to listen, the experiences never stop teaching.
June of my seventeenth birthday a friend of mine introduced me to a boy. He was her boyfriend’s cousin and I’m pretty sure her motives were selfish. She was a bit of a possessive friend. If I dated this boy, she and I would see each other more. To this day I can think of no other reason why she would set me up with a boy who listened to country and wore a cowboy hat. But, her scheme worked for a little while.
This boy, let’s call him Bobby, and I hit it off right away. The four of us would go on dates, hang out at the park and generally be four teenagers with lots of time on our hands. Every once in a while Bobby and I would go on dates on our own. Movies, tubing down the Salt River and late night pie at Denny’s. A few times I took him to outings with some of my friends. He was always the odd guy out with my friends in his white cowboy hat and black boots, but he seemed pretty at ease and my friends seemed to generally like him. “Seeing you with a cowboy is weird,” they’d say, “but, he seems alright.”
Bobby had come from Iowa to stay with his cousin and his mom, so we didn’t hang out with his friends and I didn’t really think I would ever meet them. He told me that his best friend, let’s call him Paul, would love me. He really wished I could meet his mom and his friends. At seventeen, it didn’t even cross my mind to ask why he was living with his cousin and not at home. Today, I have a pretty good idea.
My first red flag was when we were talking about his friend Paul and how Paul was trying to get him to join the KKK. Up until he said this I was under the foolish belief that the KKK was a horrible part of our past, not something that existed in the now. Having spent my grade school years in the heart of Denver where I was one of four white kids in my classroom, my brain couldn’t even wrap around this kind of hatred still being a part of our society.
“It’s not like that anymore,” Bobby insisted, “They don’t do things like that. It’s a positive group of people working to make the world better.”
Stupid seventeen-year-old me believed him, but I made it clear that I still didn’t like it on principle. I told him I couldn’t date a guy who was a part of that group, even if they were different now. Look at my friends and tell me I could be okay with it. If he decided to join, that was his choice, but he’d have to respect mine.
A week later he told me he had decided not to join. That’s when the phone calls started.
The first one came one afternoon in July. It was Bobby’s best friend from Iowa, Paul. He called to introduce himself and say how Bobby talked so highly of me. He just wanted to get to know the girl his boy was lovesick over. I’m no slick talker and the conversation was weird and awkward. I just wanted to get off the phone, but I didn’t want to offend my new boyfriend’s best friend. I stayed on the line for about ten minutes politely telling him about myself. Then it was his turn to tell me about himself. He casually told me about the sports he played, his and Bobby’s plans to start a country band someday and that his father was a Grand Dragon in the KKK. It was said with the non-chalance of mentioning if his dad was a math teacher.
I sat on the phone stunned into silence. Then, in his casual tone, he told me he heard I was a bit of a bad influence on their boy. That he didn’t like some of the things he was hearing. At that point my heart dropped to the floor, I quickly said I’m sorry he didn’t like it and that I had to go. I hung up the phone and called Bobby. We needed to talk.
When I told Bobby about the phone call he was angry, but I noticed, not surprised. He told me that Paul had talked to him and said he needed to get rid of me. I was no good for Bobby. Paul said Bobby either needed to break up with me or lose his best friend.
“I told them to go to hell,” Bobby said sadly, “What kind of best friend tells you what to do like that?”
After that day I received another phone call. This one late in the evening after I had gone to bed. My mom had set me up with one of those extra “teen” lines they used to do, so I was the only one who could hear it ring. Groggy, I answered. The caller didn’t identify themselves and I didn’t recognize the voice. They told me I needed to break up with Bobby or something bad would happen to me. Then they hung up.
It scared me, but even more than anything else I was annoyed. I was going to call Bobby in the morning and tell him to fix it. I wasn’t going to be scared away with stupid threats.
The next morning I received another phone call. This time it wasn’t a teenage boy on the line. The voice was clearly an adult man.
“Young lady, if you don’t stop filling our boy’s head with nonsense, we are going to be forced to do something about it.”
I screamed at the caller to leave me alone and called Bobby. He told me he would take care of it and hung up.
That afternoon I received more phone calls. More threats.
By the next day they got worse. I was being told things like “If you value your life...” and “Don’t think we can’t reach you all the way in Arizona.” I terrified. I was afraid to go out of the house alone, but I didn’t want to be home where the sound of the ringer made my heart jump.
On day three I unplugged my phone.
I only saw Bobby one more time after that week. He was ready to stand beside me, but he still didn’t see the KKK as “all bad”. We broke up fairly amicably and, truthfully, we would have broken up even if this hadn’t happened. I sometimes wonder where he is and what direction his life took.
The phone calls stopped after Bobby and I broke up, but it was a long time before answering the phone didn’t make me queasy.
This may be the first time I’ve told this story in its entirety. I look at it now and wonder what kind of a headspace was I in that it didn’t cross my mind to talk to my mom or the police. But at this point, it is just a piece of my personal history. I’ve moved on. Mostly. In some ways it sticks with me. In some ways it just feels like a thing that happened to someone else in a book I read. It was my moment of dealing with what I now know is not dead history; an emblem of racism, the KKK. I ran head-on into the ugliness of that group. I still have some battle scars from holding my ground.
I have carried this story silently with me like a secret badge of honor. It was my moment of strength and solidarity. It gave me a different perspective on the problems with racism than your average white person. Like many white women, I have said some of those things that are problematic. I have patted myself on the back for being an advocate. Maybe sometimes I deserved it, but that’s not the point. The point is this. This experience and how I handled it is no badge of honor.
Listening to POC share their experiences, their exhaustion and their frustrations, I have learned that I had one frightening experience that showed me what others experience all the time. It scared me. It was hard to hold to my morals in the face of these threats. It affected me long after it was over. It was also a one time experience. As a white woman, I got to walk away from this situation and move on with only my own head to fight with.
Sure, I’ve faced other experiences in life that have scared me. This experience wasn’t the only time my life was literally threatened. But it was the only time my life was threatened due to racism.
I’m not perfect. I will continue to make mistakes. I will say the wrong thing. I will offend people. I may have offended a reader with this very writing. However, I will not stop trying to be better. I will not stop trying to show others how to be better. I understand that sometimes helping means speaking up. I understand that sometimes helping means stepping back and letting someone else be heard. I won’t always get this right either, but I will not stop trying.
You may be thinking right now, “This blog is supposed to be about Art. What does this have to do with Art?”
My answer? Nothing directly, but here are a few things to consider. The Art world also struggles with racism whether it is intentional or not. This experience and what I have learned from it has shaped me as an Artist. Art is the representation of ourselves creatively and there should be a place for all of us to feel represented in Art. Artists are not immune to the threats and effects of racism. Art can teach how to be better. Art can bring people together. But Art needs to self reflect as well.
None of us are perfect, but I challenge you to ask yourself every once in a while “Am I better than I was before?”.