My father was a bigot. My father came home with bruises and black eyes from fist fighting with his African-American co-workers at the Timonium post office. My father used the word “spooks” on a regular basis. My father Told me at age 12, “You might have to work with them, but you cannot be friends with them and you cannot date them”. This was because I said Billy Dee Williams was handsome.
I was not allowed to watch “Roots” like all the other kids and when my teachers discussed it in school, I had no idea what they were talking about. When I tried to invite African-American friends to my 6th grade birthday party, I was sat down on the couch for a talk. My father said, “We do not have spooks in our house. Our neighbors do not want them in our neighborhood. You will stop being hanging around with these girls now.” The truth was, I was selected to sing with these two friends for a trio in my music class. He didn’t know that. I was so scared what would happen if I actually performed on stage with them. I made excuses and quit the trio. I didn’t know what else to do.
I left home at 18. My father didn’t believe in college, and he had left us virtually penniless earlier that year. Once my mother was making enough money to care for herself, I left. I wanted to be among all kinds of people, unashamed of who my friends were. Out of the range of his still watchful eye, or the eyes of a town that adored my father, but sadly didn’t really know his truth. I moved to my beloved Baltimore City and started to learn my own realities about race.
One time, while waitressing at the Museum Cafe, I was sent to pick up glassware with my friend, Tim, who just happened to be black. My boss told us where the store was. Timonium. The fear set in. If my father saw me with Tim, what would he do to him? And me? He would cause a scene of some sort. I couldn’t really back out, so I went, terrified. After the pickup, Tim wanted to grab some lunch. In Timonium. As we walked into Friendly’s Restaurant, the heads turned. In 1984, the heads turned! We were ignored for seating. We stood there, Tim getting madder and more vocal, and again, I was terrified. We eventually left, still hungry.
As I continued into my work life in downtown Baltimore, I was so happy to find myself in places where I hoped race would matter less. I have always been happiest around all kinds of people, enjoying all the differences. I thought just because I was happy this way, everyone else would be, too. I was wrong. I didn’t know that if I got a promotion to a position previously held by an African-American woman that she would resent me because she wanted her spot filled by a woman of color. I didn’t know it would be weird to attend the funeral for the only son of an African-American colleague, shot down getting the laundry for his mom from the dryer at their apartment complex. He had just earned his Eagle Scout honors. I didn’t know it would be weird to attend that funeral, but when I got there, I found out it was. I didn’t know that when I began working for a non-profit who’s mission was to create homeownership opportunities in urban neighborhoods, that I would be unwanted in the effort because I was so white. I just wished the world to be a better place and for the cities that I loved to be better places for the kids growing up there. I was at a conference in Washington DC, where a group of urban issue professionals told me I had no right to my job because I didn’t know what it was like to be raised in the inner city. What could I say? I didn’t. Again, I felt terrified. So when I could, I quit that job just like I quit that trio in my music class.
So, I moved to a white neighborhood. Married a white man. Had a white baby and moved to a predominantly white state, in the predominantly white city of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. But, because I wanted to be sure my very white, blonde daughter was as color-blind as possible in a mostly white community, I bought her dolls of every race. Her favorite was a beautiful African-American baby doll, that she carried with her every where. The stares she got in the grocery store made me so angry. One lady said, “I think your child got the wrong doll”. Yes, that happened. I wanted to slap her, but I just said, “This is her favorite”. The lady just grunted and shook her head.
And so it goes. And here we are, in the midst of so much killing. Honestly, this has happened for a very long time, but has in recent years has become news fodder, so now the world can witness what most Americans have known and turned away from. I don’t even know what to say anymore, to anyone. I again feel terrified, but will continue with the only thing I know how to do. Encourage people to get to know those they consider “different” and find how much you have in common. Support candidates who truly believe in equal rights. Be unafraid to be vocal that having a gun is not the way to peace. This is a feeble offering, but it is something. Do something. Do it now.