Sharing All Stories – A Reflection on DE&I by Cheri McDowell

I’m bi-racial. Born to a white mother and a Black father; something that initially rocked the white family that I grew up with. See, my father hasn’t been in the picture since I was around one year old, so my childhood wasn’t split between the two. I grew up entirely with my white family. In very white spaces. A black sheep, standing out from the flock.

My childhood was great for the most part and I never recall yearning to know my father or meet my other family, but as I’ve gotten older, especially in the last few years I’ve started asking myself, “How much have I missed out on?” While I don’t have a real comparison, a duplicate Cheri’ in another dimension, living life with both families, or even a third dimension where I only live with my Black family, I know that my life would be entirely different. I believe things have been easier for me than they could have been. While I’ve experienced racism and implicit bias from family, friends, and strangers, I know that it could be or have been worse. I’ve been riding on the privileged coattails of my white family. If my presence was questioned, and it definitely was, I’ve seen it in people’s eyes, in their whispers as they see me walk in the door, it was questioned less as soon as they saw who I was with. I could almost hear their thoughts. “Don’t worry, she’s with people like us.” I never let it bother me and there was a piece of me that loved being seen as different. Dare I say that I felt like a unicorn?

Those stares and whispers can tear people down. It doesn’t need to come from strangers either. It comes from the people you are closest with. Comments from friends and family members that they think are jokes. Jokes like, “Oh, you trying to be Aunt Jemima.” Yes, that was said to me by a close family member. All because I had a scarf in. Another time, picking up my cousins in a small town in southern Indiana with my hair big and curly, “Cheri, do you need a hair tie? It looks like a tree.” Clearly asking because it was making them uncomfortable that my hair was unlike their own. A racist great uncle who has basically admitted that I am only okay because I am part of the family. It shouldn’t matter if I am family. You don’t have the right to decide if I am a good person or not based on my skin tone, where I came from, who my family is. Two summers ago, when the tragic events occurred, when we were out protesting for those lives lost and the lives of ourselves, not one extended family member reached out to see how it might be affecting me or if I had insight to share. Not one word until I reached out saying we all had work to do, myself included. The response I got was silence and some pushback along the lines of “I worry about my children too.” Of course you do, who wouldn’t, but you don’t need to worry about the same things. How dare you act like your experience is the same. I’ve put some distance between myself and many family members in the last couple years. They’ll always have some place in my life, but ultimately, I realize that they don’t hold the weight that they once did, and that’s okay. We can move on from the things that don’t lift us up.

I feel lucky though. That unicorn complex I mentioned, it’s shaped who I am as a person. I grew up knowing I had something different, standing out from the flock with my own special experience. It’s always been important to me and thankfully, I recognized that young and harnessed it to be the person I am today. I am confident in the woman I am and will always be. But that’s not the case for everyone. Not the case for so many. We all have different experiences that shape who we are and the hurdles that may or may not trip us up. I trotted myself over my hurdles and I wonder the person I’d be if those hurdles were different.

It’s important that we all reflect on ourselves. Think about the way we grew up, who our families are or who they could have been. Ask yourself, “What could my life have been?” We need to examine the things we’ve said to others that we thought were innocent. Ask yourself, “How would those words make me feel?” Examine what our biases are and why they exist. Ask yourself, “How would constant biases against me change my life?” And ultimately, you should ask yourself “How do other cultures, people unlike myself, enhance my life?” If your answer is “They don’t.” you’re doing it wrong, and have a lot of growth ahead of you. We all have something to gain from our neighbors. This is why diversity, equity, and inclusion is important to us all. Now and always.

“This is my story and I hope that you’ve learned from it. Just as I will continue listening to the stories of others and learning from them. We can grow together and help shape our world into something more.”

Learn more about Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Volunteers of America

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