Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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“It’s rented,” she said.
I could barely understand the woman’s heavy Eastern European accent. Or maybe I just didn’t want to.
It was the spring of 1998, and my husband, Tim, was about to finish medical school. I’d recently gotten my law degree and was working as a public defender for Los Angeles County. Our time in graduate-student housing was up, and for weeks I’d spent every available lunch hour poring over rental listings, looking for the perfect place. One of my top choices was a unit in a gorgeous art deco fourplex in a trendy area, near the museums and the farmers’ market. I’d spoken to the landlady by phone and answered all her questions: what kind of work we did; where we were originally from (me, the Bay Area; Tim, Kansas); how long we’d been at our current place; and why we were moving. Seemingly delighted by my answers, the woman had suggested we come by to see the place that afternoon.
As we walked up to the door, we admired the landscaping of succulents and native plants. Tim wore his blue-green hospital scrubs, and I had on a tailored dress and heels. We rang the bell. When the door opened, the woman’s smile fell, and her body stiffened. She invited us in without any of the warmth I’d felt over the phone.
Under her breath and without making eye contact, she told us the place had been rented.
“But just three hours ago you said it was available,” I reminded her.
“It’s rented,” she repeated.
Judging by her accent, she hadn’t lived in this country long, but it was clear she had adapted quickly to its tradition of racial discrimination.
I turned to my husband and said, “Let’s go.”
“I know how to handle this. Let’s go.”
I knew exactly which papers to file and what the procedure would entail. The authorities would send potential renters, some Anglo-American and some African American, to test this woman. I methodically filed the complaint to set the process in motion.
Within a week we had found an apartment elsewhere, one that was more spacious and modern than the fourplex. My husband graduated and began his medical residency. Things had worked out for the best, and we didn’t bother to follow up on the complaint. Or maybe we just wanted to forget.
Woodland Hills, California
During the first week of school several of my fourth-graders came running in from recess to tell me that a classmate was saying he didn’t like black people.
I later questioned the student, who admitted it.
“Why would you say that?” I asked.
“What were you thinking?”
He shrugged and looked past me, but not down at his feet, as students often do when they feel guilty. It was as if he wanted to explain but couldn’t. Stumped, I responded with something lame like “We don’t talk like that here,” or “You are not going to have many friends if you keep talking like that.”
This was just a month or so after white supremacists had marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, and it felt to me like bigotry and racism were now being displayed openly.
As I’ve gotten to know the boy better, I’ve learned that his mom and dad are divorced, and he spends most of his time with his grandparents on their farm. He calls people who live in our small town “city slickers” and talks with great affection about farming with his grandpa. His relatives proudly display the Confederate flag, even though they have always lived here in western Michigan. When he says, “I don’t like black people,” he’s just reflecting his family’s beliefs.
I come from a different background. My parents both worked hard for civil rights, and I believe the world is a better place because of their efforts and the efforts of others like them.
This year, when I taught civil rights, I added a personal story that I had previously left out: my own heritage of racism. My mom told me that, when she was a child, her family had “colored help.” One day a woman working at their house fell off a chair, and my grandma instructed my mom to bring the woman some water. When my mom did as she’d been told, her mother scolded, “Not in a glass! Get a canning jar!”
My students were surprised to hear this story, considering how passionate I am about civil rights. Honestly, it was hard to tell it in front of my racially diverse class.
Over the past few months, the student who said he doesn’t like black people has gotten to know African Americans, Mexican Americans, city slickers, special-education students, and emotionally impaired students in our classroom. He is making friends.
My Norwegian maternal grandfather immigrated to the U.S. in the mid-sixties, along with his wife and three children. They settled in a small town in east Tennessee, where he did volunteer work to help end segregation. For decades he donated to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and other groups dedicated to preserving civil rights. He was also active in his church, visiting the homebound, giving people rides and money, and doing charity work. My best memories of him, starting when I was very young, are the conversations we had about philosophy, ethics, and life’s big questions. He didn’t just love me as his granddaughter; he also respected me as a person.
As much as I spoke with my grandfather growing up, I knew virtually nothing of his past until I was twenty-one and he let me interview him about his life.
I learned that as a teenager, during the Nazi occupation of Norway, he’d left his family’s isolated farm to attend boarding school in Germany. There he was compelled to join the Hitler Youth and later sent into combat as a sharpshooter. He quickly went AWOL and was captured by Russian soldiers, who starved and tortured him nearly to death.
Meanwhile his parents cooperated with and prospered under the Nazi occupation. After the war, my grandfather’s father and older brother both served time in prison for collaborating with the Nazis. My grandfather was incarcerated as well, but not for long, due to his youth. Some members of his family continued to harbor extreme prejudices. My mother remembers her paternal grandmother once complimenting her blue eyes, saying, “Blue eyes are good. We know there’s not any Jew in you.”
I believe my grandfather never forgave himself. I’ve sometimes wondered whether his good deeds in the U.S. were a sort of penance. Though he clearly enjoyed helping others, I think his charity also served as a balm for his own psychological wounds. I do know this: I never saw any trace in him of the hate his parents had taught.
Somewhere in the Desert
I went to a rural high school in Alabama. My white skin helped me blend in, but my long black hair and high cheekbones stood out, along with my Mexican last name.
When I was sixteen, I fell in love with a blond-haired, blue-eyed country boy. He was charming and called me “exotic.” A year later he gave me a “cute” new nickname: “Dirty Mexican.” He would call me this and then laugh, as if it were all in good fun, though it made me feel uncomfortable and ashamed.
Rather than recognize his racism, I started labeling myself “white, not Hispanic” on official forms and laughing at his jokes about “beaners” and how funny it would be if my dad wore a sombrero and a mariachi outfit. I acted as if my father’s side of the family didn’t exist. I thought of them as “dirty Mexicans.”
I am not together with my high-school sweetheart anymore, but I still get nervous when people ask my ethnicity. If I say I am half Mexican, will they think I’m “dirty” or “illegal”? I shouldn’t care. I should embrace who I am. But deep down I am afraid of being judged.
My mom and I are curled on the love seat when my older sister, Jessie, gets back from waitressing at Betty’s Bar-B-Q. After a night serving fried green tomatoes and corn bread, Jessie’s speech takes on a distinct Southern drawl. She tosses her apron on the piano bench and says, “Ooooo-wee. I swear, if those new busboys don’t get their act together, I’ma let ’em have it.”
“Wait one minute!” my mom says, laughing. “Remember who you are and start over.”
We may live in the land of porch swings and sweet tea, but within these walls we speak the way our Yankee mom taught us. We cut our vowels short in ways that prompt strangers to ask where we are from.
“I’m not saying it’s right,” our mother clarifies, “but first impressions matter, and you don’t want to miss out on opportunities because people think you’re uneducated.”
More than a decade later I’m still unlearning the lesson that to sound Southern is to sound dumb.
When I was a boy, I had a friend named Bobby. He and I got together just about every day to ride our bikes, play stickball, and read comic books.
One frigid day in February 1965 the two of us were slowly pedaling our bikes side by side when Bobby turned to me and said, “Two niggers shot Malcolm X yesterday.”
I felt as if I’d been punched. In the couple of years I’d known Bobby, I had never heard him use a racial epithet. (I had heard other kids in school do it, both black and white.) I suddenly became cognizant that I was black and Bobby was white. Until then I had thought of us just as friends. My family had welcomed Bobby into our house without regard to his race, as we would anyone. I felt betrayed, but I remained silent, a decision I regret to this day.
The late-winter afternoon seemed especially cold as we rode on to our destination. I don’t remember much else from that day, except that I desperately wanted the world to return to the way it had been before Bobby had said that word.
In retrospect, I wonder if the N-word was used regularly in Bobby’s home. His family, like mine, was working-class. They lived in a cramped basement apartment around the corner from ours. The few times I went there, he had me wait in the vestibule while he went inside, as if the doorway were a boundary I could not cross. But I don’t know for sure if I was denied entry because of the color of my skin.
About a year later Bobby and his family moved to the country, a case of the “white flight” that was common in urban areas then. When he departed, there was no tearful goodbye. For a few months afterward, he and I corresponded by mail. Eventually the letters ceased, and I never heard from him again.
Our son Daniel was twenty-three when he announced that he was gay. We had just finished eating dinner and watching 60 Minutes. After he packed up some leftovers and went back to his place, I started to cry.
My husband was relieved. He had recognized that Daniel was gay long ago. He didn’t particularly like it, but his position was “He is who he is,” and “If he were left-handed, would you try to change that?” I’d always refused to accept my husband’s conclusion. Daniel had gone to the prom with a girl. He played sports. He didn’t sashay when he walked. He was a masculine young man. He was my handsome, funny, whip-smart, sweet boy, and I didn’t want that tainted.
I got little sleep that night, thinking of my parents whispering the word queer and making jokes about men they suspected were gay. I remembered kids in high school stroking an eyebrow with a pinkie when our effeminate algebra teacher wasn’t looking. How in the world would I cope with having a homosexual child? Was it my fault? What would I say when people asked if Daniel had a girlfriend?
At work the next day, colleagues could tell something was wrong. A friend took me to lunch, and I revealed my terrible news.
“He’ll be fine, and so will you,” she said.
Easy for you to say, I thought.
When I got home that afternoon, our other son was playing with the dog in the yard. As I walked up, he smiled and said, “I hear Daniel talked to you guys last night.” I had no words, only tears. My son threw his arms around me and said, “Mom, he’s still Daniel. Nothing has changed, except that you know something today you didn’t know yesterday.”
In that moment I understood that I was the one with the problem, not my son.
Jo Ann Shain
San Francisco, California
Here are some things people have said to me:
“But you don’t look Indian.”
Karuk-arara is not a “look.”
“Do you speak your language?”
I’m semifluent in three. Why must I provide credentials?
“I am Indian, too. One of my grandmothers was part Indian.”
Really? Which part?
The grade-school text said, “California Indians were called ‘diggers’ because they dug in the earth for food.”
What about potato farmers? Or those who harvest wild mushrooms?
“But you can’t be an Indian because they are all dead.” This is actually something a fellow student told my sister in class. The teacher was too ignorant to correct the lie.
In one generation the Native American population in California was reduced by 85 percent by soldiers, settlers, gold prospectors, silver and copper miners, poison, and disease.
When I went to college, a professor of sociology said to the class, “Indians are statistically insignificant, so we won’t include them in this discussion.” He also said the committee would accept me into graduate school only if my thesis had nothing to do with Indians.
I later learned that my dad’s graduate committee had forbidden him to write about the education California Indians had received in the mission schools. Meanwhile work was moving ahead on the growing university campus. He saw students displaying skulls from their car mirrors — skulls that had come from Indian graves unearthed by the construction.
Magda was my best friend in high school. We studied together, talked for hours on the phone, and visited each other’s homes on weekends. We even had identical plans for the future: complete college, find an interesting career, marry a brilliant man, and have lots of intelligent children.
Magda was Lithuanian, and her parents had moved to the U.S. to escape Soviet communism. I am a Jew, and my German-born mother had fled the Nazis as a child. Though I had been raised to hate and fear the Germans, I was blissfully unaware of Lithuanian hostility toward Jews. I honestly didn’t know why Magda’s parents seemed suspicious of me.
During my senior year in high school, I volunteered at a local synagogue’s Israeli cultural fair. It included an Israeli-style coffeehouse, and I’d agreed to wait tables at it for two nights. I convinced Magda to join me. We both had a good time the first night, but the following afternoon she called and said she couldn’t come again. Her father was angry that she’d gone at all. She told me what he’d said: “I am not going to let my daughter join the Jewish race.”
Magda and I both went to college. I attended an out-of-town university and lived in a dorm, but her parents insisted she live with them until marriage. Magda got married the summer after her freshman year. She was nineteen.
That first marriage lasted only a year, and within another year Magda remarried and got pregnant. She rushed to complete her degree a semester early, before her baby was born. One evening during my final college semester, I said to a friend, “I think Magda is having her baby right now.” I didn’t know she had gone into labor.
Later that evening I received a call from Magda’s husband. The baby had indeed been born at the moment I had intuited.
After Magda’s second divorce, she and her two-year-old daughter moved near me, and we frequently spent time together. Magda started dating the man who would become husband number three, and I met the man who is still my husband. By this point my friend had decided to study medicine, and one day she called and said her mother had found someone who could help her get into her chosen medical school: “He’s a real Jew, my mom says.”
“What do you mean, a ‘real’ Jew?” I replied.
As if I were a child, she explained to me that real Jews cheat. They know how to work the system to get something done. To her mind, I was not a real Jew.
I got off the phone quickly, feeling as if I had been slapped in the face. I had known her parents were anti-Semites, but Magda, too? I felt betrayed by her casual prejudice. Our relationship rapidly deteriorated.
Magda attended medical school, but not the one the “real Jew” was supposed to help her get into. She called me just once, three years later, to tell me that she’d had a severely handicapped baby who required institutional placement. She needed sympathy and support, but I was too hurt and angry to give it to her. I still feel guilty for my insensitivity.
I called her about a year after that to tell her that I’d had a baby — a healthy one.
“Why are you calling me?” she asked.
We did not speak again for more than thirty years.
Two years ago I looked her up online, and we talked via Skype. She recalled our high-school friendship fondly.
“Do you remember why we stopped being friends?” she asked.
Not wanting to spoil our nostalgic moment, I didn’t remind her.
Los Angeles, California
In November I start getting e-mails telling me volunteers are needed: “The weather is anticipated to dip to freezing, and shelters will be activated.” I immediately grow anxious and begin to have unkind thoughts.
The recluse in me is uncomfortable chatting for a four-hour shift with another volunteer. We will set out cots and bedding and snacks and new pairs of socks in a room normally used for senior yoga and line-dancing classes, then wait for our guests who are without homes to arrive. About half the time people will show up, forced indoors because it’s too cold in their car or they want a shower or some company.
The conversations with guests are often about the trouble they’ve had finding a place to live, or a job, or enough money to get back to where they came from. Some are trying to get away from a spouse or a lover who is stalking them. Others used to be rolling in money until the Great Recession. Many talk about the spiritual or religious beliefs that sustain them.
In the seven-odd years I’ve been doing this, I’ve become cynical. I wonder what’s true in the guests’ stories, and what’s fabrication. I imagine the volunteers donate their time only to assuage their guilt about leading affluent lives while others lack a place to live. But who am I if not a woman who volunteers because she doesn’t want to be perceived — or to perceive herself — as a selfish, uncaring, privileged person?
I resent the other volunteers for being so damn righteous, and I resent the guests for being so sad and lonely. I resent them because I don’t want to be reminded that I have felt righteous and sad and lonely, too.
“Get one of the wetbacks to help you,” my parents might say if I asked for assistance saddling my horse. They owned a stable, and it kept them quite busy. When they responded this way, I’d shrug and go find Artimio or Alicio. They always took the time to help me.
At six I was too young to understand the inappropriateness of my parents’ language, but I’ll tell you what I did understand.
I understood that at the end of Artimio’s long workday, I could always count on him to throw a baseball with me for an hour.
I understood that when I decided to learn to ride a bike without training wheels, it was Alicio who held the seat and ran alongside me while I pedaled, who picked me up when I crashed, and who celebrated when I finally figured it out.
I understood that when a rare Texas snowstorm hit our area in 1985 — the first snow I’d ever seen — Artimio and Alicio joined me in a snowball fight and assisted me in building entire snow families.
I understood that these people, whose skin color happened to be different than mine, were my friends.
It was a warm, late-summer afternoon in Boston. Cars drove down Massachusetts Avenue, rumbling over the broken asphalt. My daughter and I walked arm in arm, on a quest to find just one more consignment shop or secondhand store. Well, she was on a quest. I was just being supportive. I had come to dread the thrift shops, which smelled dank and musty. But she would always find some treasure: a rare book, a bouquet of silk flowers, a picture of a human heart.
“How much farther should we go?” Hannah asked. The neighborhood was changing around us, the buildings getting dingier. More and more people of color sauntered past on the crowded sidewalk.
I felt the old anxiety I had felt when I would ride the city bus through the segregated sections of Cincinnati, Ohio, as a child. I would stare out the window at the poverty and the men sitting in entryways or leaning against light poles. The bus didn’t stop in that section of town, where I had been warned never to walk alone, as if something there could soil my middle-class whiteness.
“I think we can walk maybe two blocks more,” I said to my daughter.
As we passed a crowded bus stop, I swung my purse from one shoulder to the other and nervously scanned the building across the street for a SALVATION ARMY or GENTLY USED sign.
“Hey,” a voice called out. “Hey!”
I turned and saw a powerfully built African American man holding something out to me.
“Here, this fell out of your purse,” he said. He had a bill in his hand: a twenty. I glanced down at my purse and saw another bill poking from the top.
I reached out to accept the money from him and smiled. “Thank you so much.”
The man was maybe in his forties, with thick, dark brows and heavy eyelids. He had on a rumpled shirt, baggy pants, and worn shoes. He didn’t smile or speak, just nodded curtly and turned away. We had locked gazes for only a few seconds, but I felt as if he had seen through my cheery response to the subtle racism underneath.
I’d grown up trying to be charitable to an “inferior” race. The racial slurs that had sailed around my house in Cincinnati had infected me, despite the fact that I’d spoken out against them. When I became an adult, I thought I had escaped the racism I’d been taught, and I tried to be kind to the few African Americans who passed through my life.
Today I feel ashamed: For shifting my purse as I approached a group of African Americans. For my gushing, patronizing tone and too-big smile. For the split-second thought: See, they are not all thieves and panhandlers. For being extra gracious to someone who needed to be “lifted up.” If I had really seen this man as a human being, I would have expected him to be honest. I would have expressed my simple gratitude for his good deed, uncomplicated by feelings of relief. I would have treated him with respect.
I’m a registered nurse and have a history of IV-drug use. When I started nursing school in my thirties, I hadn’t used illegal drugs in more than ten years, but I still never spoke about my past to anyone. I thought they might not let me become a nurse if they knew.
I could have spoken up when I heard other nurses — and doctors and social workers — say judgmental things about patients with substance-abuse disorders, but I was afraid.
Years later I heard a physician talk openly about her opioid addiction. By hiding our histories, she said, we addicts contribute to the discrimination.
I wish I were ready to stop hiding and include my name here. But there’s still so much prejudice.
My Pennsylvania high school had only about thirty “Negro” students, as they were called then, all of whom lived in the close-knit enclave of La Mott, named after Lucretia Mott, the Quaker abolitionist. La Mott is an old community and a former stopping-off point for the Underground Railroad, which helped slaves escape the South. Some La Mott families had lived there for hundreds of years, their ancestors having fought in the Revolutionary War.
I was the features editor of my school newspaper, and when the civil-rights movement gained momentum in the mid-1960s, I wanted to write a story that would make the national news more relatable to my classmates. I decided to interview the Negro students about what it felt like to go to a nearly all-white school.
It wasn’t a big deal, I thought, until I was pulled out of French class and escorted to the vice-principal’s office. Elmore “Doc” Mattson was the school disciplinarian. He wagged his index finger and said he didn’t expect such nonsense from a young lady like me.
Seated around the large room were all the Negro students in the school. Mr. Smith, the school newspaper’s faculty sponsor, was also there. He was the one who’d reported me to Doc. Was he afraid my piece would cause a riot or something?
Doc put the question to all the students: “Do you want this story to be in the school paper?” Every student but one agreed that it should run. The only student who objected was a girl who had hated me, and nearly everyone else, since kindergarten. I felt vindicated.
Despite the school authorities’ fears, my article didn’t make a ripple, but one good thing did come of it: While doing the interviews, I’d met a girl I’d never talked to before. She’d told me she was tired of being considered only for band or sports as extracurricular activities. I’d asked what she wanted to do, and she’d said without hesitation, “Work on the paper.”
After I graduated, she became the first African American features editor at my high school.
New York, New York
We called them “working lunches.” On the first Friday of the month the entire office would go out to a restaurant at noon. The boss would talk about a project for a minute or two, to justify the “working” part, and then we would eat and socialize until the server made it clear we’d overstayed our welcome. Instead of going back to the office, we’d start our weekend a couple of hours early.
In September it was Helen’s turn to choose the restaurant. She always picked Cracker Barrel — not my first choice, mostly because it was hard for a party as large as ours to get seated there at lunch.
During the twenty-minute wait, I wandered the “general store” half of the restaurant, looking at the old-timey merchandise. Halloween items were on display. A tiny woman who looked older than God was fascinated by a mummy that spoke whenever someone walked by it. She kept trying to trigger the motion sensor, but she was too short. I put my hand in front of the mummy, and it spouted its recorded message.
The woman cackled and thanked me in an accent I couldn’t quite place. “I can’t reach,” she said, and she raised her arm toward the mummy to demonstrate. That’s when I saw faded, but legible, numbers tattooed on her wrist. She caught me staring and started to withdraw her hand, then almost defiantly put it back out, the inside of her wrist facing me.
I didn’t know what to say: “I’m sorry”? “I’m glad you survived”? In the end I just smiled and made the mummy talk once more.
When my party sat down, Ted was seated across from me. The waitress took our drink orders, and Ted asked for water with extra lemon. When the drinks came, he squeezed five lemon wedges into his glass, then emptied several sugar packets into it. As he stirred, he said, “Jewish lemonade.”
Some people laughed. Others looked uncomfortable. No one said anything. Fifteen minutes earlier, I would have remained silent, too.
When I was twelve years old, I convinced my parents to spend our two-week summer vacation traveling from Connecticut to Florida. I was hoping to purchase some fireworks in South Carolina, then resell them back home and make more than double my paper-route money.
As a family of nine, we had little money to spend, so we camped along the way and visited monuments that required no entry fee. As we entered Virginia, the historic landmarks turned from the American Revolution to the Civil War. The huge numbers of casualties were a revelation to me. Even more shocking were the slave quarters, the auction sites, and the chains and iron collars.
At a Carolina rest stop my father informed me that I was to use the WHITES ONLY restroom and drink from the WHITES ONLY water fountain. I had never heard of such a thing, and my parents’ explanations could not settle my mind about it. The more I saw these signs, the more curious I became. What was it like inside “colored” bathrooms? Did they have sinks? Did they have toilet paper? Were colored people really dirty, as I had heard whispered in school? I wanted to drink from the colored fountain. Would the water taste different? Would it be cloudy?
Seeing me eyeing the fountain, an old man shook his head, spit, and made his feelings clear: “We don’t share no water.”
Somewhere near Georgia my family set up camp along a riverbank. My mother by now was aware how the enforced separation of races was affecting her offspring, and she did her best to answer our questions. She said all people were God’s children and talked about the meaning of freedom. She and Dad had seen changes, she said, and things were getting better.
After our talk I started walking toward the river. In the distance I heard voices singing gospel music. Hands clapped, and a man sang, “Take him to the water.”
In unison the group responded, “Take him to the water.”
“Rock him in the water,” the man sang.
And the group repeated, “Rock him in the water.”
Finally I saw a black congregation baptizing a young boy. They lifted their arms toward heaven, smiling, joyous. I moved closer, wishing I could take part in the celebration but also looking around for disapproving whites. Seeing none, I found a secluded place, stepped into the river, and stood there, hidden from the congregation. And I wondered: Why can’t we share this? Why are we not all friends?
I grew up in Texas, and until the third grade I lived on San Antonio’s west side, a virtually all-Latinx world where the only white people I saw were actors on television and in movies, priests at church, and teachers at school. Then we moved to a middle-class neighborhood to be closer to my dad’s work, and I began interacting with white kids.
My first encounter with prejudice came when a boy on a bicycle stopped in front of me on the sidewalk and sneered, “Get out of the way, you dirty Mexican!”
I was confused. I’d never heard Mexican used as a pejorative. And what did this guy mean, “dirty”? It just didn’t make sense.
When I began attending the mostly white elementary school, I heard a boy call one of my classmates a “dirty Jew.” I have to admit, I had no clue what Jew meant.
I soon experienced other forms of prejudice, including kids “locking” schoolyard games: as soon as one of “us” approached, they’d sing loudly, “Tick, tock, the game is LOCKED, nobody else can play. Hurray!” This happened so often that I quit trying to join their groups and climbed the monkey bars by myself or played store with a friend, selling “mesquite beans” and other goods.
Racism was rampant at the high school I attended. For the most part it remained covert, until a Mexican American student named David Cortez dared defy the unwritten rule that only white males could run for student-council president.
I knew David as a bright, affable, energetic classmate. I’d never talked to his opponent, whose campaign telephoned me at home before the election to ask for my support. When I said I was voting for David, the young man on the phone replied, “All you Mexicans stick together!” and hung up.
David won the election.
Nancy De La Zerda
San Antonio, Texas
I’m an angry black woman. (I’ve seen plenty of angry white women, too, by the way, and angry Latina women, and angry Asian women. Seems that anger is an equal-opportunity emotion.) I became angry because of racism, sexism, classism, and probably a few other “isms” that I can’t remember.
These “isms” stem from people defining me by preconceived notions before I even speak one word. Now, granted, I don’t have to face the same racism that my parents faced: Jim Crow laws, WHITES ONLY signs, and segregated schools. The “isms” I face are more insidious and subtle in nature. It’s the look of shock and disappointment on the face of the job interviewer who, after a fantastic phone interview, meets me in person. It’s the accolades and “attagirls” from my superior, who pays me fifteen thousand dollars less than my underperforming colleague. It’s the times my ideas are ignored in a meeting; then a male counterpart says the same thing and gets showered with compliments. It’s being asked to show an ID with my credit card for a smaller purchase than the one the white woman in front of me made.
All these experiences, as horrible as they are, are not the worst part of prejudice. It’s the effects the experiences have on me that are the most destructive. I’m constantly second-guessing my abilities; fearing that I am being taken advantage of; wondering if a person of another race fully embraces me for who I am; hoping that the next crime story on the news will show a white suspect instead of a black one; questioning whether the successful black man in a relationship with a white woman believes black women are not good enough for him; and on and on. There are too many demons for one person to fight. But fight them I must.
Garfield Heights, Ohio