One summer when I was about 7, a white girl almost drowned me.
We were splashing around in Lake Winnepocket on a sunny afternoon. The lake was crowded as usual, and Kelly—as I will call her—offered to carry me out to the big rock. The big rock was about 25 feet from the shore, and served as a marker for where the lake bed took a sharp dip and got dangerously deep. Most of the younger kids who swam at Winnepocket knew not to go past that rock, whether they could swim or not. I didn’t know how to swim, but I loved the water. My mom used to have to give me three or four warnings that it was time to go before I would come out, begging for just five more minutes. Kelly was a few years older, and so when she offered to carry me out to the big rock, I felt excited at the chance to see it. I also felt cool because a big kid had taken an interest in me.
Kelly held me on her hip and we waded slowly out toward the middle of the lake, past other kids dunking and bobbing and shrieking with delight. And then, when we got to the big rock, she dropped me. I quickly sank, as my toes reached instinctively for a bottom they couldn’t possibly touch. My nose burned as water flooded through to the back of my throat and I gagged, flailing and terrified. I squeezed my eyes shut, lashes and lids saturated and heavy, and pushed my hands against the weight of the water, trying to buoy myself to the surface.
After what felt like forever, an adult finally pulled me to safety, and I coughed and sputtered and cried. My sister, who in her memory was sitting on the shore, didn’t tell me until we were adults that after Kelly came out of the water, having left me behind, she laughed and called me the N-word.
In my memory, my sister was in the water with me, about five feet away from where this was happening. She was not a great swimmer herself and always kept to the shallow part, never venturing much past where the water hit her thighs. My sister and I were close when we were little, but this seemingly small disparity in our recounting of this story is telling.
I grew up the only black person in an all-white town, adopted into an otherwise all-white family. Many people at the lake must have seen what happened, but only one stepped up to save my life. In my memory, my sister was one of the onlookers. Had something already been ingrained in my sister’s 11-year-old mind, through school or TV or who knows where, that betrayed her instinct to save me? Did a similar something make her block out that she’d been physically close enough to have the instinct to begin with?
I shared this story on a recent episode of my podcast, Come Through. We were talking about the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, and why it was important to call Arbery’s death what it was: a lynching—vigilantism when the crime is being black.
The spectacle of a black person terrorized by a white person, struggling to breathe and stay alive while other white people look on, is not new; in fact, it’s foundational to America. During slavery, lynchings were used to subjugate the black population and entertain the white population; black people were hanged from trees in front of raucous, smiling white crowds. We know this because many of these events were captured in photos, which were then printed in newspapers.
Before the national discourse around Arbery’s death even had a chance to wane, new video footage spread, this time of a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a black man, until he died. Floyd told the officer he couldn’t breathe before he breathed his last. And now Minneapolis and other cities have erupted in protests, echoing the summer of 2014, when black activists took to the streets following the killing of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, which also prompted the hashtag and organized collective Black Lives Matter. What’s happening now also echoes so many other protests in the fight against police brutality and violence toward black people over the course of American history.
I want white people to stop killing us, but I also want white people to stop watching us get killed—to disarm their emotional paralysis in the face of dehumanization or worse. And that will require something more than tweets and hashtags from well-meaning white people, and more than even traditional activism coupled with appeals for concrete policy change. It will demand intervention. If not a physical intervention, like the adult who pulled me out of the water at Lake Winnepocket, then a moral one.
The other day, a childhood friend of mine who now lives abroad called me out of the blue in tears: “How can this be happening? I’m so sorry about what’s happening in America, but more so what’s happening to black people in America. I don’t know what to do. I just feel miserable and I can’t stop crying.”
“Lean into that,” I said. “That’s the appropriate response.” Miserable is exactly how the white people who want to help should be feeling right now, and then they should sit with that misery until something breaks in their brain, the narrative changes in their psyche, and the legacy of emotional paralysis lifts entirely. I don’t mean self-serving sadness or performative tears, but rather a bone-deep sense of agony and grief that forces the humanization of black people. We can’t matter unless we are seen as human beings first.
I don’t believe that my sister or neighbors intended to watch me drown that day at the lake. It all happened fast. But the fact that a white girl almost drowned me while other white people looked on proved my humanity only to me.