When I watched the events unfold in Charlottesville on Saturday, first, I rolled my eyes. I felt no element of surprise because, well, I’m Black and a woman, so I’m well acquainted with discrimination (I left a job because of it!). But, for some reason, a tiny sliver of me wanted to understand what the hell drives people to that level of hatred, in which they feel that their progress is threatened by the progress of others. I normally attribute it to “sin,” which is really anything that drives us to feel more important than new really are, but I’d never really taken the time to really think about it in almost 32 years, so I figured I’d take the moment to reflect.
A couple of weeks ago, I was at a park for a family fun day with my in-laws. My BIL had set up cornhole in case the family wanted play, and he left the beanbags next to the wooden hole box things. A few little white boys whose family was also picnicking came by, picked up the beanbags, and started playing. They were no older than 5, so I figured their mother would tell them to put the beanbags down because they didn’t belong to them. Instead she laughed and said, “Did you ask to play with that?” The kids didn’t answer her, and she didn’t bother to ask again. My BIL smiled politely and told her it was fine for them to continue playing.
But it wasn’t fine. The beanbags weren’t theirs and they didn’t ask to play with them. There was no acknowledgement that they were infringing on someone else’s property and that they were not supposed to do that. Instead, they were allowed to do it by both their mother and my BIL, who understandably didn’t want to be a jerk to some little kids over something as trivial as beanbags. On the surface, it wasn’t a big deal, but it annoyed me so badly that I had to walk away and get myself another beer.
That moment showed me how clear the path is from playing with beanbags without asking as a 5-year-old, to marching in the streets to declare your unhappiness with your race’s seeming digression later in life.
It starts with entitlement. And when that entitlement comes into question, it automatically leads to feelings of inadequacy. When you’re used to getting your way and you suddenly can’t, of course you’d wonder what’s wrong with you. As we saw this weekend (and over the course of U.S. history), when entitlement and inadequacy collide, the result is a massive cloud of shit.
I know what it’s like to feel like I’m not enough. I constantly battle thoughts that I’m not a good enough writer and that’s why I haven’t published more; I wasn’t good enough at investment analysis and that’s why my bosses shat on my performance; I’m not a good enough family member and that’s why my loved ones don’t bother trying to understand me. I can understand how badly it feels when one feels like they’re not enough.
But I’ve never felt low enough to need to take to the streets to inform the world of how badly I feel about myself. That is a low that I pray I never reach (and, thanks to racial double standards, I would not be successfully able to do).
I assumed everyone gets told at some point that they have to find those feelings of adequacy within themselves, that they can’t look to external validation, including the words and actions of others, to make them feel like they are enough. And then I realized that no, not everyone gets told this. They get laughingly asked, “Did you ask if you could play with that?” with zero consequences.
If the world is going to change, we have to start with our kids. Tell them that they are enough no matter what happens, and that someone else’s success does not equal their failure. Tell them that they don’t deserve a damn thing but that which they work for. Tell them to be grateful for every breath they take.
In his NY Times column, David Brooks called for “modesty” as a way to tamp down white people’s anxiety. But modesty isn’t the right word; gratitude is. There is no room for inadequacy when gratitude is firmly in residence. Instead of expecting to receive what others have, be thankful for what you have, even if it’s nominally less than that of others.
Frankly, I feel that this is an impossible ask. The irony that America celebrates an autumn holiday called “Thanksgiving” is not lost on me. It highlights that our sense of gratitude has always been warped, that from our founding we thanked God for providing us food while subjugating the people who grew it.
I pray that a glimmer of hope will remain lit, that those of us who want peace won’t give up altogether. I’ll do what I can, by telling my kids to be grateful and by reaching out to my neighbor, giving no room for hate.