• Jamease Kowalczyk

Be the Counterweight!

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

You’re so friendly. I like that you’re so friendly. Or as one White person in the US Virgin Islands told my friend (a Black local) while he was on vacation, “You’re so friendly. You’re not like the Black people back home. They have a chip on their shoulders!” He didn’t realize that I was one of those Blacks from home about whom he was referring.

As a Black kid growing up in a small, White suburban city, I’ve been aware that I was different since kindergarten. And in the fourth grade, I became acutely aware that I was Black, and that Black is more than a color. To some, Blacks can be only athletes or musicians. To some, Blacks are inferior to Whites and should aspire to stay that way. To some, Blacks should be segregated from Whites. The list of how Blacks are viewed goes on and on. Most of the associations with Blackness in America are negative. So, how did I, in spite of the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype, end up being viewed as “friendly” by people who know me? First, I chose to be Black in my own way. Next, and just as importantly, I had a counterweight.

"A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out." —Walter Winchell.

I was fortunate to always have a few friends who stood by me through difficult times, they were my counterweight to negativity. So, when Nina stopped being my friend, I still had Sally. When Mrs. Wilson projected her outdated views of marriage onto the prepping-for-adulthood social experiment in her classroom, the White students and friends who rallied around me were my first experience with real-life warriors of social justice. When I had my first brush with the KKK, the two White guys who stood by me were my introduction to White allyship. I also had a small cadre of friends of color who attended high school with me. They included—a handful of other Black kids, the four children of the two East Indian families in our community at the time; one of the girls opened my eyes to the fact that, “she has the brown skin, too” and a young, biracial, Thai girl who was brought to the US by her White father who was serving in the US military when he met her Thai mother and only learned of her existence many years after her birth. I was not alone. Moreover, growing up in the Bible Belt, my church was the biggest counterweight of all.

Today, I’m a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA) because two ladies from the Welcome Wagon visited my parents at our home shortly after we arrived to the small city. These ladies asked my parents if they were looking for a church home and invited our family to their church. When we visited the church, the members embraced my parents, and especially us kids, from the start. They were generous with hugs (because we’re Southerners) and showed genuine care and concern for all of us. My mother is still an elder in this church today. I was especially fortunate because the ministers under whom I grew were dedicated to missionary work and had an international perspective to their own ministries. In particular, one minister and her husband, who was a professor of Economics at the local Liberal Arts college, brought with them an international lens to everyday conversations that was complete with friends from around the globe. Although they didn’t try, they made me want to learn French and instilled in me a desire to visit other countries and especially, go to the continent of Africa—anywhere in Africa! As a result, I grew up knowing that my high school and our small city were just pieces of a much larger, world puzzle. Knowing that the narrow-mindedness and hatred that I oftentimes experienced was nothing compared to the love, warmth and acceptance of the much larger tapestry of life was a critical and necessary counterbalance to my emotional health and well-being. Every step of my difficult way was met with a counter force that was far more powerful than the difficulty itself. That force propelled me into adulthood and will last me until I take my last breath.

On June 19, 2020—Juneteenth—a young Black girl drew chalk art on her driveway and in front of her house in the Boulevard Manor neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC. The chalk art quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. and expressed support of the Black Lives Matter movement. A White neighbor complained and by 7am three county workers were power washing the chalk art, which had been called in as graffiti. The workers, who were Black, probably didn’t want to wash away this creative display, but they had to because this job is their livelihood and a means of supporting their own families. In direct response to this event, another neighbor took to social media to share her grievances about the initial complaint. Around the same time, the mother of the child sent an email out to the neighborhood listserv. The story made the local newspaper. Several of my local Black friends picked up the story and shared it across their social media pages. We were all enraged. These are the near-daily microaggressions that scar our days as Black people and can result in our being seen as “angry.” Later in the day, I came across a post by one of my White friends—Becca. She lives in that neighborhood and by noon she’d heard that her neighbors had reacted. She ran out on her lunch break, created a PicCollage (and shared it on one of her social media accounts) of the neighbors’ responses—a combined chalk art effort across the neighborhood in support of Black Lives Matter and their neighbor! This young, Black girl will grow up knowing that while there may be someone who doesn’t see value in her life or her perspective, her larger community is surrounding and supporting her with love. THIS is an example of what being the counterweight looks like! When I saw Becca’s PicCollage, I shared it with one of my Black friends who had posted the original story on her Facebook page. The response to my post was endearing. Several of her Black friends were so happy to see the follow-up to the original story. One even commented that she cried about this story twice, but for different reasons. Many of us understood exactly how she felt!

I write these words today to share with you that I understand what being Black means in America and that I no longer view myself through others’ eyes. I’m proud of the Black woman I’ve become. I can walk around today with a smile on my face and a lighter step because while I’ve experienced some despicable behavior in my youth and even more in adulthood, counterweights were present to more than even things out for me emotionally. Those counterweights are some of the reasons (outside of my family, of course!) that I can carry the charge, and oftentimes burden, of being a Black woman in the United States.

So, if you ever wonder what it is that you can do to help during these racially-charged and emotionally trying times, and beyond, I say that the most important thing you can do is be the counterweight! Be the counterweight for otherness…for the new neighbor…for the new employee…for the kid who doesn’t fit in. Be the counterweight for George Floyd and to reinforce that Black lives matter. Be the counterweight to Asian hate…and Muslim hate. Be the counterweight to hate of any kind!

Being the counterweight starts with kindness, transitions to empathy, and ends with action. We may not see ourselves in another person the first time we meet them, but when we pay attention, we can either find or build a connection. In being the counterweight, you can start to shift the paradigm; you can start to change the culture. In being the counterweight, you literally spread hope, joy and love one action at a time and live by the words of Anne Frank— “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

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