When I was a little kid, I only ate white foods. Predominantly, rice, yogurt, pasta, cheese, bread, and chicken. Nothing of any color was allowed on my plate. I didn't eat colored foods because I hated them. I hated vegetables. There were some fruits that were okay, but even there I was picky. If it was white, I'd probably eat it. If not, more often than not, I'd throw a fit.
"I hate that. I hate that and I will not eat it. I HATE IT!"
My mom did most of the cooking, but it was my dad who most regularly shut me down. "Nicky, you can't hate something you've never even tried. We're not cooking a whole different meal just for you. Hate is a very strong word. Try it. You might even find out that you like it."
Hate is a very strong word. That became his mantra with me. Hate is a very strong word. Maybe you dislike it, maybe you don't understand it. But you don't hate it. You shouldn't hate it. Try not to hate things, Nick. Try not to hate. Try hard.
As I got older the conversations shifted. We stopped talking about vegetables, started talking about his drinking. Started arguing about the way he talked to me, the ways he disrespected me, or my mom, or my sister. We would get into screaming matches that ended in tears. I would find myself yelling myself hoarse screaming again and again "I hate you! I hate you! Do you hear me? Get out of my house. I hate you!"
And still, after the door slammed shut and I'd cried myself out, I could hear his voice in my head saying, "Hate is a very strong word. Try not to hate. Try hard."
Tomorrow is Father's day. And my dad is on my mind. And with everything happening, in Charleston, in the Dominican Republic, all over this country, and all over the world, hate is on my mind too.
I believe that we hate for two major reasons. We hate when someone we love hurts us deeply. And we hate because we're afraid.
We talk a lot about "fear of the other". I've read that phrase a lot in this last week as people try to make some sense out of the hate crimes and racism that are swallowing this country. We get very into preaching about acceptance, about calling out terrorism. What we don't seem to do, is to accept that there is a hateful part in all of us. We don't want to acknowledge or lay claim to the people who perpetrate these horrific and violent crimes. And so, though we don't think of it this way, we "other" them by labeling them terrorists. We get angry when we see them humanized by the media. We feel the loss and the hurt of what they've done so deeply that we don't want to look at the ways in which we are responsible for them.
And I understand. I feel unspeakably angry and afraid most days. I feel a fear so rooted in the pit of my stomach that there are no words for it. I feel alone in the face of this continued violence. I feel afraid to raise my voice, afraid to lift my head. And I am livid that I am here in 2015, witnessing such extreme violence and discrimination in a society some have dared to call "post-racial".
But I am responsible. I am responsible for the nine lives lost in Charleston. I am responsible to their families who have had their loved ones ripped from them because of someone else's cowardly fear and unimaginable prejudice. And I am responsible for the murderer. For the hatred in the core of his being that allowed him to do this. I am responsible to this society to learn how to love instead of hating, and to pass what I learn on to those around me. To accept that sometimes I fail at this, and to try harder. I am responsible to speak up about injustice, and to act. I am responsible for recognizing the prejudices that are second nature to me. I am responsible for breaking the cycles of discrimination and racial hierarchy on which this country is built. I am responsible, not because I am black, and not because I am white, but because I am human.
And so are we all.
On days when I would scream at my father that I hated him, sometimes I would feel better. I would feel better to know that I'd hurt him. That I'd somehow gotten even with him for hurting me. And then, almost immediately, I would feel a horrible pain. I would feel the air rushing out of me like a popped balloon. A weakness all over from which I couldn't recover, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days. And I would remember that hate is a very strong word. And I would wish I had tried harder.
I am lucky to have only been called "nigger" once in my life. When I was eight years old, an old woman approached me as I was leaving a bookstore. She swung her cane at me and exclaimed over and over that she was going to kill me. She was going to kill me because I was a dirty nigger. I had just bought a coloring book of Victorian houses and a new set of colored pencils. And I remember thinking that it was remarkable she hated me so much though we'd never even met. I didn't understand entirely what was happening, and almost as soon as it started it was over. And I was quickly whisked away by the friend of my mom's who had taken me to the store, and who apologized to me the whole way home.
This is the kind of hate that is easy to point out and declare problematic. It's the kind that we separate ourselves from, and say "That's awful" and take comfort in the fact that we would never do something so cruel.
But I've had white male friends tell me that if they "didn't only date white girls," I would be their type. I've had a friend tell me that she "doesn't like black hair because it doesn't feel like real hair." I've listened to friends sing the N-word along with Kanye West with a smile on their faces. I've grown up with a feeling of inferiority based on my skin color that many of my friends don't understand. I've felt guilt for being too light-skinned around my black friends, and I've felt out of place for being too dark around my white friends. And this is the kind of hate that we don't see so readily because it comes from the fear of difference that is inherent to the structure of our society. This is hate and prejudice that is just a part of the way we interact. That crops up so often we sometimes forget to mention it. And especially now, when violence and fear surrounds us, we are responsible to each other to try harder. Not to consider ourselves above the hate crimes we see. But to see ourselves reflected in them. And to do better.
So I guess what I really want to say, at the end of all this, is that I love you.
I love you, fiercely and with my whole heart, because that is what I can do.
I love you. To my father who breaks my heart, but taught me to be generous with my love and with myself. To my family who supports me even when I'm difficult. To my friends who amaze me with their sensitivity and caring. And to you. Maybe I know you, and maybe not. Maybe I understand you, and maybe not. But I love you. And for you I will try harder.