Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 6–8 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Q.I have a question. Why does the amount of melanin a person has define him or her more than their personality? Why are African-American teenage males so often at the receiving end of a trigger? Why is it that people of color have to be scared to go to school, to drive or to hang out with friends. Why do they always have to have the thought of a gun being shot at the back of the head or the chest? Why do mothers have to worry if they will never see their son again? At this point, as an African-American 16-year-old female, why am I scared to walk out of my house and end up being at the wrong place at the wrong time? Why am I scared to post the wrong opinion or state the wrong statement? As a human being on this planet, we should love other human beings. It should have nothing to do with skin their complexion, their mental abilities, their weight or their height. It should have nothing to do with their sexuality or their gender. We should love people because of their heart. We should listen with our ears, to everybody. Silence is not an answer. We should be respectful no matter what, and I will pose my question again. What does the amount of melanin a person has have to do with their self-worth?

– 16-year-old

Mary Jo’s Response: My heart hurts. I hear pain and fear and anger and frustration in your words. I fought tears as I read them.

You are absolutely correct. The amount of melanin a person has should not define self-worth. It should not define worthiness in the eyes of others. Complexion has nothing to do with people’s contributions to life, or the beauty of their spirits and their creativity or their unique personalities.

You didn’t cause racism, but you are affected by it. No baby is born hating another person because of skin color or the other differences you wisely mention. You are right – a person’s worth should not be determined by melanin or mental abilities, weight, height, sexuality or gender. And, if I may add a few other areas where people are judged – by age, religion or wealth. Yet, we tend to buy into stereotypes and foster bias against those who are different. Hate is carefully taught. I believe love can also be taught, but I was blessed with a family where people were judged by their actions.

As a child, we lived at the bottom of a hill that led into an even steeper one. I don’t recall people salting and cleaning roads. There was a huge box of ashes on the corner by our house. In winter, fender-benders were very common as people slid into our sidewalk or yard because they couldn’t stop. My Papa would rush out to the car, helping people get out and spreading ashes on the path to our front door. He’d usher the travelers into our house to use our phone (there were no cellphones then – I’m old!). Then he’d open our fridge and remove provolone cheese and salami. He’d cut tomatoes and slice thick Italian bread. He’d put on coffee. I’d watch him sit at our kitchen table with these strangers, offering comfort and encouragement, until someone came to help them get home.

I saw my Papa treat each person with great respect, offering dignity. He cared not for skin color or class or ability. Each person was a person of worth to him. I try to be his daughter.

You are wise beyond your years. I’m sad that you’ve encountered the harshness of racism. I wish it weren’t so, and I’m very sorry my generation didn’t get it right. But, because of young people like you, I have hope. Please hear me. Your self-worth is not defined by anyone but you. Maya Angelou said, “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

As a person born with white privilege, I cannot experience what you describe. I have empathy for what you feel. I hurt with you. I stand with you and proclaim the injustice of the treatment you’ve seen. I validate your feelings.

I’d also like to use this column to encourage people’s growth. I’m an educator; I’m grateful for the opportunity to teach. I belong to a study group of white professionals seeking to raise awareness of our role in racism. The books we’ve read include “The New Jim Crow” by Michele Alexander, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race” by Beverly Daniel Tatum, “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth about Our Racial Divide” by Carol Anderson, and White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo.

My dear friend and author Anesthesia Higginbotham has written a book for children called Not My Idea: A Book about Whiteness. It’s available on Amazon. Along with two wise colleagues who are people of color, I’ve written Nonnie Talks about Race. Mariotta Gary-Smith and Tanya Bass are my consulting authors on the book because I could only speak to race through a white person’s perspective. I needed their voices to make the story complete.

Your voice matters. It is clear and insightful and full of wisdom. You express real fears about growing up as a woman of color, being Black, and surviving and thriving in our world. I honor you and support you. I want to encourage you to continue writing, to grow as a person, and to speak out. I respect you. You are worthy.

If you have children in the future, I pray they will find a better day. I pledge to work with you to make that day happen. Thank you.

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