What Happened After I Called My Black Friend 'Sis'

by Katherine Fugate
Originally Published: 
A black man and white woman holding hands

“Can I call you ‘sis’?” I asked.

My friend laughed, smiled. “Oh, hell no.”

A white woman calling a black woman “sis” is out of bounds.

I admit, I was hurt. Surely, she knows how much I love her? She knows how angry and disappointed I have been with white women playing it safe and staying silent because they can.

But she was telling me that, no matter how “woke” or evolved I may think I am, I walk this world as a white woman, which means I’ll never truly understand what it is to walk this world as a black woman.

It was hard to hear. I wanted to call her “sis” because I deeply wanted that feeling of sisterhood and kinship. But I also knew she wasn’t trying to hurt me. She was loving me enough to tell me the truth.

I wanted to defend myself. I wanted to hand her my bio of marches and rallies. I’ve had a black male lover. I’ve had female lovers. I know what discrimination feels like. I’ve been told I’m going to Hell from family members and from my own religion. Hell, I am a woman… That qualifies me, surely?

Nope. Still doesn’t make me black. No oppression, no misogyny, no religious persecution will ever make me a black woman. I can empathize but, as someone who is not black in America, I’ll never know.

I’ll always be a white woman when walking down the street. Blonde hair, green eyes, I’ll always have a “pretty privilege” of everyday kindnesses and passes, most of which I probably don’t even notice.

Sure, once when I was walking down the street a white man spit on me because I was holding a black man’s hand. But I was spit on because of Kelvin. Had he not been there, it would have just been me and my pretty privilege. No Kelvin, no spit.

What I can do, my friend said, is be a witness.

In March, my 11-year-old daughter and I visited the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in DC. As we approached the museum, we watched a big group of folks — grandparents, parents, and kids — step off a tourist bus and enter the museum, as many do every day.

This group was all white, as many are, with every member dressed in a uniform of red MAGA hats, American flags, bald eagles, USA and red, white and blue. They wanted to be identified by who they are and what they believed in. No different than my ACLU beanie and Sandy Hook Promise t-shirt.

But regardless of outfit, we all wander through museums roughly the same. About an hour or so later, my daughter occupied with an exhibit nearby, I found myself in an emptier museum section with a teenaged girl and boy, both white, blonde and wearing MAGA hats.

We weren’t alone for long. A black teenage boy walked up to them, from across the museum, with purpose.

“I matter,” he said, by way of introduction. They laughed, confused, what?

He pointed to their MAGA hats. “That hat makes me uncomfortable,” he said.

They, with no meanness, close to kindness, replied, “This is a white country.”

The black boy’s cheeks reddened. He was brave, but he was alone.

The museum floor was filled mainly with white people. MAGA families wandering closer.

Not sure how much to say or what exactly to do, I moved closer and stood beside the teenage boy of color. Together, we stood and faced the two white teenagers, who were sitting across from us.

I didn’t say anything. I just wanted him to know that I, a middle-aged white woman, was there for him. He never looked at me. I never touched him. I don’t know if he even knew I was there. But I could feel the electricity in his body. See the sweat beading on his forehead. Imagine his heart racing.

“This is not a white country,” he said. “It’s all our country. Don’t you get that?”

The white teenage boy and girl again laughed. Not in derision but confusion, nervousness. Not understanding any of this, unable to register the teenage boy was close to tears.

He didn’t need an answer. He’d said his peace. He walked away.

Later that night, I wondered, had I done enough? Was being a witness enough?

Tickets reserved from home months ago meant the next day in DC was, coincidentally, spent at the National African American History Museum. Here, my daughter and I were two white people in a sea of black, a demographic reversal from the day before.

I was acutely aware of being white while looking at images of human beings in chains, babies stolen from crying mothers who were sold on the auction block.

I waited in a long line of black people to see Emmett Till’s coffin. In 1955, Emmett Louis Till was a 14-year-old African-American boy from Chicago who was visiting Mississippi.

A married 21-year-old white woman accused him of whistling at her. Three days later, the black teenager was hauled away from his bed by white men. He was lynched, beaten, mutilated and shot in the head. They strung barbed wire and a 75-pound metal fan around his neck then dumped his lifeless body in the Tallahatchie River.

Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, insisted on an open casket. She wanted the country to view her son’s bloated, mangled body. “When people saw what happened to my son,” she said, “men stood up who had never stood up before.”

The all-white jury took two hours to acquit the two white men of Emmett’s murder. The jury would’ve acquitted him sooner, but they’d stopped for a soda break. Sixty-two years later, before dying, the woman who accused Emmett said she’d lied.

Standing in front of Emmett’s coffin, I felt such rage, such anger at what happened to him that I could not contain it. Like a broken vase, water started seeping out of my eyes. My entire body started shaking, cracking. I can’t explain it other than, I’d left that room for a moment and went somewhere else.

Our ancestors hand down to us physical and emotional traits, talents and personality. Do they also hand down their pain? Generations of pain from oppressing or being oppressed?

When I returned to my body again, I felt warmth all around me. Hands of all ages were on my back, on my shoulders, holding me upright. I looked down. The hands were all black. To be held up and witnessed like that — it was one of the most profound moments of my life.

When I was a 20-year-old white girl holding my black boyfriend’s hand as we walked down the street, Kelvin did not tell the white man who spit on me to fuck right the hell off. I did, causing Kelvin to grab my arm and drag me away. Later, Kelvin and I had our worst fight as a young couple.

I was angry he didn’t stand up for me. He was angry I didn’t understand why he couldn‘t.

I didn’t get it when Kelvin pulled me away. I still wanted to make it about me.

I didn’t get it when my friend told me I couldn’t call her sis. I didn’t realize that I was asking to adopt another race’s culture, experience, and identity. I made it about me.

The white MAGA teens inside the Air and Space Museum didn’t get why a black boy needed to say, “I matter.” They made it about them.

Carolyn Bryant didn’t get it when she accused 14-year-old Emmett Till of flirting with her after he walked into Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market to buy two cents worth of bubble gum. She made it about her.

J.W. Milam didn’t get it when he murdered Emmett Till. “What else could I do? He thought he was as good as any white man.” He made it about him.

Very few describe themselves as racist, but all white people benefit from racism. White people benefit every time they rent an apartment, buy a car, apply for a job, apply for a loan, apply to college. My daughter and I are more likely to survive childbirth, and there is a better chance that I’ll be alive after I’m pulled over by a cop for a broken tail light.

Racism is not just an attitude or a feeling toward people who are different than you; racism is also a structural, institutional system which has benefited white people from the day Europeans landed on this soil.

White people own the top percent of the vast wealth in this county. White people own the majority of real estate, run the vast majority of corporations, determine the cost of the products and the pay of the employees. We control the political system, the judicial system, the educational system, the health system and the legal system.

But none of these systems are broken. They were built this way. White people are broken. They built these systems this way.

That we live in a country where anyone would have to assert they matter at all, should tell you something is very wrong.

White people are broken, but they don’t have to be. Broken is not evil. Broken means something needs to be fixed. Healed. Changed.

White people created this mess. White people need to help clean it up.

To do so, white people can and should speak up. Sometimes, a simple “I agree,” is enough. Yet, we well-meaning white people or “allies” get confused about when to speak up and when to shut up, and we’re deeply afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. Perhaps we can start by acknowledging that we don’t know what we don’t know — and ask.

People of color don’t need us to be their hero or their leader or their “sis.”

People of color don’t need white people to speak for them. They need us to hand them the mic.

For a black person to say, “Black is Beautiful,” a white person first said, “Black is Not Beautiful.”

For a black person to say, “Black Lives Matter,” a white person first said, “Black Lives Do Not Matter.”

Perhaps we’ve said enough for a while. Perhaps it’s time to listen.

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