Cynthia Phillips, Where Are You? I Still Want To Be Friends

A missed opportunity for friendship means less love in the world

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Photo by Engin Akyurt

Decades ago, I knew a beautiful Black girl who attended elementary school with me. I grew up in rural Washington state. There were almost no Black people in the area. Cynthia was the only one I ever met, or spoke to. They were truly rare. I don’t remember any others at our school until Junior High.

My family was middle class white, and big. My dad was in the military and my mom was a school teacher. We were, I guess, “colorblind”, a word that then meant tolerant. Today, we know that word just means something more akin to “clueless.”

In my home, we revered Martin Luther King. We were not allowed to judge people. We were taught to always regard others with respect. To this day, in the area where I grew up, I never heard the N-word spoken, by anyone. It would have been shocking, and frightening, if I had. We were taught that the N-word is more hideous than the C-word hurled at a female. And there was plenty of other derogatory names, which although terrible to be thrown around, I heard many times, especially around my military brothers and dad.

The sad truth is where I grew up, I learned almost nothing about the lived experience of being Black. The truth is, I knew more about the native people, because we worked with them in the summer, and hung out with them every Fourth of July and News Year’s, to buy fireworks, of course.

I met and talked to Cynthia during a science lesson. I was attracted to her, because, like me, she wore glasses. In those days, hardly anyone wore glasses, but today they are ubiquitous for many children. She also seemed kind of geeky, and ostracized. Cynthia and I became sixth grade lab partners. It did not occur to me that the reason she had as few friends as I did, was perhaps because she was Black.

In social studies class we studied slavery, the civil war, and the civil rights movement. I would not know, however, until I was a young adult, how very much of American history was sanitized for “white protection.” Take Washington state for example. It’s named for a slaver who did not believe that women, or poor (non-propertied) folks of any color deserved representation by votes or democracy. Maybe a more enlightened generation will change Washington state’s name to something else. Maybe real change, getting more equality, compassion, and love out into the world, must come long before such symbolic adjustments.

I still have one of those tiny little school days portraits of Cynthia. I take it out and stare at it sometimes. I wonder what became of her, and her life? Did she graduate to swan-hood out of being an ugly duckling like me? Did she go to college? Did she marry and have children?

I am back in the Seattle area having been relocated to San Diego and Hawaii for most of the last twenty years. I know no one in the area now. I would love to find Cynthia, and see if she would like to be friends. I missed my chance all those years ago.

When we were kids, I am ashamed to say, that I never invited her to our home, or on a swimming day. All the other girls at school had no qualms about inviting themselves up to ride our horses. But, not Cynthia. I was clueless as to why. I never even played with her at recess. Although for the life of me, I can’t remember why, but I never saw her on the playground.

Finding Cynthia is not a fresh thought from being woke by recent events. I cull photos and things periodically, and when I found her photo, several years ago, I was instantly drawn to her. I very much doubt that she still has my photo, or even remembers that I ever existed! But, still, I wonder.

Like all hate in the world, the ideology of white supremacy hurts both the oppressed and the oppressors. I realize, that it has robbed me of little things, even as it robbed BIPOC even more severely.

I know no Black co-workers. There are few brown and Black people in the climate justice movement (at least around here — there are plenty throughout Africa) I have never met a Black psychologist, and I can name even fewer who are writers. Where I am now, hidden away in my little cabin, I have never seen a neighbor of color. Seattle, sure, but around redneck-ville here, they are just very under-represented. Even when I was a mountain climber, although a great number of the best athletes anywhere were Black, I almost never met them on the trails.

In life, the “little” things of which racism robs everybody, are not really so little. I am certain that if we were all more thoroughly integrated, and equally represented, we would all have better, fuller lives. Diversity would abound, and I would learn new ideas, new experiences, discover new innovations for a troubled world. I would go hiking with interesting people from all kinds of rich and rewarding cultures.

Maybe I could even celebrate being older, fatter, middle aged geeks with Cynthia Phillips.

Instead, we have the daily tragedies like climate crisis, COVID-19, and civil unrest that is hitting the most vulnerable the hardest because we never coped with racism correctly in our past.

There is a hopeful song on the winds of change, though. People, at long last are toppling statues, revising flags, and taking down brands, names, shows, and more. Like Gone With the Wind, maybe it will all blow away.

I am suspicious about whether for many people it’s just a symbolic show, or if it really will change this time. What if too many people are just “re-branding” white supremacy to keep it insidious and hidden from the defensive among us who don’t want to know they can do better?

When I hear code words like thugs, or mob, or agitators, I wonder what it is the speakers are not saying.

Like I said in the beginning, I was raised to be “colorblind.” But that is not what we should ever have taught our children. Instead of saying “All lives matter,” we should teach them why “Black Lives Matter,” both as a movement for justice, and a slogan, is necessary.

When we play into a zero-sum game, there are no real winners, because the ones who hold all the cards are cheating everybody. Who we like, and who we elect, and who wins our celebrity worship, is worthy of much more reflection than we have historically given.

In my small town of hicks and pale hues, I was raised by a progressive mother and a conservative father. My older brothers didn’t grow long hair in the seventies and eighties because they were making a political statement, but because it was cool and they were potheads. My deceased sister, and dad, loved Ronald Reagan because he liked horses, not because of Reaganomics, or his (disastrous) war on drugs.

My mother was a christian who taught us that Jesus was a rebellious hippie, feminist, who warns us against intolerance, and narrow mindedness. My father was agnostic.

And I became a white, snow-flaky liberal because science, literature, and history taught me that the lies we tell ourselves are the most dangerous lies of all. Lying to ourselves all those decades about being “post-racial” has proved lethal for some, and hazardous to all.

I know I will probably never again see Cynthia Phillips around Tacoma, or out here, in the sticks. But I will keep her school photo, because it’s the closest I will ever come to having her as a beloved friend.

Written by

Ecopsychologist, Writer, Farmer, Defender of reality, and Cat Castle Custodian.

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