“I’m writing a new blog series about HIV now that we’re home,” I told her, barely balancing the phone between my chin and shoulder as I carried the basket of dirty clothes to the laundry room. Laundry still overwhelms me now, of course. It was even harder then as I was newly adjusting to our life as a family of eight. Going from three to six kids - all aged 6 and younger then - in one adoption is no joke.
“I’ve heard whispers that some people at church were worried about having their child in class with mine, but no one has said anything directly to us. So, have you heard anything?”
The silence was so loud on the other end that I thought we had gotten disconnected. I said her name and “hello?”
She said, “I’m here,” as I moved laundry from the washer to the dryer.
I thought, perhaps, I needed to rephrase the question. I wanted to be clear that I wasn’t fishing for her to tell on anyone or name names or anything like that. This time, I asked, “Are there any specific concerns people have that I could address on the blog to clear things up?”
“Well,” she started and then paused. “Well, no. I haven’t heard anything from anyone else, but… well, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this.”
“Huh?” I dropped a couple items. I couldn’t bring myself to pick them up. Something about her tone made me freeze. I waited on her words.
“Well, we’ve decided we aren’t comfortable with playdates anymore. We love your kids. We do. But with HIV, we just don’t know. [Husband] isn’t okay with that. I didn’t know how to tell you.”
I’m honestly not sure how I ended the phone call. I know I finished swapping the laundry. I remember emailing her with fact sheets and links, in hopes that this was a simple lack of education. My husband and hers sat down to talk it out. We tried to assure them that our child with HIV posed no risk to theirs.
(After all, HIV – other than mother-to-child transmission – is spread through blood transfusions, organ transplants, and sexual intercourse. I think we can all agree that those activities should be off the table for playdates, right? So, no problem.)
They were resolute, though: they could tolerate our child with theirs in Sunday school, but we didn’t want to risk any more contact than that. We could still be friends, they offered. (That didn’t really work, as you might imagine.)
I felt numb for weeks. I stopped inviting people over, not knowing who else might reject us. I felt more unloved and betrayed than I had since my childhood. No one seemed safe if this best friend wasn’t, I figured.
That was almost three years ago. Yet I’ve been thinking about that experience a lot this week. As I continue to lament what this past election showed me about our country, I'm lamenting anew at the denial of justice for Walter Scott and his family in Charleston. His name became a hashtag in April 2015 because Officer Slager shot him eight times in the back while he was 17 feet away. We watched the video. It also showed Slager depositing his taser next to Scott’s lifeless body, planting evidence to match the lies he planned to tell, saying Scott had his taser when he never did. (Not while he was alive, anyway.)
If we hadn’t seen the video, I think of how the narrative might have been different. If we hadn’t seen the video, I think of how many of my friends would have believed Slager’s lies. If we hadn’t seen the video, I think white America would have ignored another black man’s blood.
But even with the video, the trial ended in a mistrial, a miscarriage of justice, as the jury was able to render a verdict but proved unwilling to do their job.
I feel numb again, like I did after Tamir and Trayvon and Sandra and Keith and Philando and Alton and Eric and Levar and John and Tyre and Laquan and Ezell and Akai and Aiyana and Dontre and Jonathan and Samuel and Freddie and Rekia and others. (The list is too long, my friends. Too long. Lord, have mercy.) I grew up the daughter of a law enforcement officer, taught to respect the badge. Now I watch story after story play out of those wearing badges who neither respect their own code or the humanity of those with skin like three of our children. I feel so numb. No one feels safe when officers aren’t.
And if those officers are just a few bad apples, then why the lack of accountability? Why aren’t their colleagues the first in line to say that this sort of behavior doesn’t represent their work? Why isn’t the justice system willing to be just when the offender looks more like my father than my son?
Just like in those dreary months following my former friend’s declaration, I’m not sure who I can trust now. I’ve heard white friends defend the hatefulness of Trump’s campaign and followers, as if their words didn’t sting. I’ve seen posts and comments about how black people just need to not run and then they won’t die. I’ve been told, “your kids will be fine because you’re raising them right,” with no realization of the racist implication held in those words, the suggestion that black mothers and fathers aren’t good parents like we are.
Somedays it’s easier to just avoid you, white friends, unless you’ve explicitly told me or shown me you are safe. I know silence doesn’t equal racism. I’m not saying it does. I'm not saying that being quiet and white equates to being racist. But I am saying that silence from white people right now equates to uncertainty for me. It means you’re a wild card. It means you might be safe for us but I can’t know that for sure. It means that if I’ve never seen you show solidarity with those who have experienced racism, then I can’t know where you stand when we do.
And when I’m feeling particularly raw, I won’t turn to you if I don’t know you’re trustworthy. I can’t. I’ve been hurt too often for that. While for many white friends, the Slager mistrial feels like just another news story, it feels personal to people of color (and those of us raising black children). As I see white friends shocked by the mistrial, most of my friends of color aren’t surprised; they’re weary from carrying pain we’ve refused to even acknowledge. How can we heed the words of Galatians 6:2 to fulfill the law of Christ by bearing one another’s burdens if we try to pretend they don’t exist?
Please, friends, try to understand. Listen. Ask. Engage. Enter the hard conversations so that we can all grow. (As an example, you’ll find an amazingly helpful conversation under my friend Laura’s comment on my post here. That might be a good starting place.)
And once you can empathize, even just a little, then do something. I’m not asking you to speak out in all the ways I do. What a boring world it would be if we all used our voices in the same way! If posting on social media isn’t your thing, I get that. I really do. (Some days, it maybe shouldn’t be my thing either.)
Maybe doing something means having a conversation with a neighbor. Maybe it means texting a black friend to say, “I know the past month has been full of heavy race-related news… how are you feeling?” Maybe it means clicking “like” on something to let a friend know they aren’t alone. Maybe it means something more, something bigger, something bolder. Or maybe it means something simple, something in your school, something in your church, something in your home.
I tried to patch things up with my old friend, but our relationship basically ended with that phone call. She wasn’t willing to treat our child like anything but a threat. I learned then, though it broke my heart, that sometimes you have to walk away from friendships. I still love her. I still miss her. It's been almost three years, and I still can’t type these words without tears. My heart is still broken over this loss, to be honest. I’m still grieving.
But a friend isn’t a friend if she can’t see my children as fully human and worthy of love and belonging. A friend isn’t a friend if he chooses the fear of my children over the truth about them, whether the topic be HIV or race or immigration or disability or gender. A friend isn’t a friend if I share sorrow and the knee jerk reaction is defensiveness instead of care again and again. (Once or twice gets a pass, though I’ll call out that behavior for what it is. But we all have bad days. I don’t think it helps any of us to drop friends lightly.)
What I’m trying to say is that it’s hard to know which friends are true friends right now. It’s hard to know if all our friends are safe. It’s hard to know who would stand with us if it had been my son murdered with evidence planted next to him instead of Judy Scott’s son.
In other words, white friends, I need you to let me know you’re safe. I don’t know how to guess at that anymore. Too many people who have shown us love in every other way have surprised us with indifference or hurtful responses about racism.
And – while I know HIV status and race aren’t the same – I can’t bear to have one more conversation with someone who I think is safe who instead replies, “Actually, I’m the one who doesn’t want my kids playing with yours.”