By Jillian Callahan
Is it racism or just a defect of character in a person no matter their color?
Growing up in a rural Midwestern town, I honestly didn’t know racism existed. I’m 53 years old now so I was the ripe old age of 5 years old at the time of the Detroit race riots and my only concern at that time was the monster who lived in my closet.
In my teens, I attended a private school. We had a few Middle Eastern students and a few African American students. To me, they were just other students. Any conflict I had in high school weren’t with those students but the mean blonde haired, blue eyes, bouncy cheerleaders. You know, the Mean Girls. Cruel vicious creatures, who, if there is any justice in the world, weigh about 300 pounds now and have rotting teeth.
I experienced my first brush with racism when at 20 years old, I commuted to the city of St. Louis. My closet friend at my job was a young black man named Marlon. We were only two under the age of 30 there and we naturally gravitated to each other as we had the more in common with each other. The color of our skin was not a division to us.
Day after day, Marlon and I would eat our sack lunches in the building cafeteria. Neither one of us had a lot of disposable income, so eating at a restaurant like the execs, wasn’t really in our budget. But one day, I hit my friend Marlon with some exciting news. I flashed my left hand at him, which was sporting a tiny diamond ring. I had gotten engaged over the weekend! He said we should go OUT to lunch to celebrate and I agreed…so excited my feet were barely touching the ground that day.
We entered the restaurant and were seated. After ordering our meal, I noticed a table of elderly white ladies giving us dirty looks and whispering LOUDLY about how disgusting it was that we were together. As time went on their whispers got louder and their comments more heinous. Marlon and I sat there with an uncomfortable silence between us. Our celebratory lunch was turning into a nightmare. Finally, the old women got up to leave and walked past our table. I started to say something and Marlon reached across the table, touched my hand and mouthed ‘don’t’ at me. So I didn’t. I still regret that.
Fast forward 19 years.
I’m a 39 year old and a divorced Mother of one. I met a man on an internet dating site who lived in Atlanta but traveled to St. Louis frequently for work. He was looking for companionship only when in town and being newly divorced, I certainly wasn’t looking for a serious relationship either. We got to know each other over the phone but since our pictures weren’t on our profiles, on night, John told me he was black. I said, “Okay, I appreciate you telling me this so I can find you in the restaurant.” Over time we formed a friendship and continued to hang out whenever he came into town.
One night, we are out having fun at a club and several African American girls start giving us those same dirty looks and comments I heard almost 20 years ago. Because a black man and a white woman are out together, we are doing something wrong. He starts to get up from the table to go confront them, I reached over across and touch his hand, mouthing ‘don’t.’ We finished our drinks and left.
See, that’s the funny thing, folks. Racism, if that’s what you want to call it, exists on both sides. But it’s deeper than that. It is others who think you are somehow inferior because there is something inferior in them…an insecurity, a perceived injustice they had with someone who looks like you.
I think to bridge this gap, we ALL need to elevate the person as an individual, not as a group and we will find, we are much closer than we think.