Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Hidden Dirt

Why does racism still occur regularly and with frequency, but many people deny its presence or question the victim? Because then, as a society, a cultural collective, we don’t have to deal with it. We’ve swept it under the carpet, easily hidden it, and the room looks clean. But the dirt is still in the room. Racism still exists. It’s the dirt under our carpet.
(Excerpt from essay What’s Race Got to Do with It?)
I’ve experienced this fear of not speaking up about racial injustice.  Once Ronald and I went to an athletic shoe store. We were there for about half an hour as Ronald tried on shoes. He selected a pair and told the white salesman that he wanted to purchase them. He filled out a check that was preprinted with our address and phone number, and he produced his driver’s license as proof of address and identity. The salesman refused the check. He had looked Ronald’s name up in the phone book and didn’t find the number listed under his name. I told the man I was Ronald’s wife, and to look under my name in the phone book. I pulled out my driver’s license to prove it, but he still wouldn’t take the check.
We left the store angry and humiliated. I wrote a letter to the editor of our local paper and complained about the treatment we received. The evening after the letter appeared in the newspaper, we got an anonymous phone call.
“You got exactly what you deserved,” the male voice said before the line went dead.
Racism hasn’t died. It’s gone into hiding, and interracial relationships draw it out.
Right after Ronald and I moved to Winston-Salem, NC, in 2008, we had a different experience shopping for shoes. I had picked out two pairs of shoes at one of the department stores and was at the counter paying for them, Ronald at my side. The white saleswoman kept staring at us.  I began to feel uncomfortable until I saw that she was crying.
“How long have you been together?” she asked. “You look like such a nice couple.”
“More than thirty years,” I responded.
“I’ve been with mine for eight,” she said, tears spilling down her cheeks. I knew she meant her husband was black.
“Has it been hard?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, her voice halting. “My son stopped speaking to me, and my sister is kicking us out of the condo she rents to me.”
We stayed and talked with her for about twenty minutes before she was called away by other customers. She was a woman in her fifties, had served a distinguished military career, and was divorced with grown children. She still met opposition from her family.
A year later, after inviting her and her husband to dinner several times, I stopped seeing her at the store. She never took me up on my invitation, saying her husband was suspicious of meeting new people. I wondered whatever happened to her, and found out in 2010 right before Cara’s wedding. She was back in the shoe department.
“I missed you,” I said when I saw her.
“I’ve been out on stress leave,” she said. She explained how she ended up in court battling her sister for the right to stay in the condo; how the neighbors had yelled racial slurs; how she and her husband had been at odds about how to proceed; how she had a breakdown and had taken leave; and how she had lost the court case and was forced to move. The store had given her back the position in the shoe department when it became available, and she was happy to be there.
“Call me. We can have lunch, just the two of us, if you like,” I said, leaving her my home phone number. But she never did.
I understood her sense of isolation. I’ve felt it myself. Sometimes it just feels too much like work to make friends, trying so hard to find people who can picture Ronald and me together and not feel uncomfortable about it. Sometimes I wonder if there is something wrong with us, something that doesn’t have to do with race at all. Maybe we are just unlikable. But I know that’s an excuse, a glossing of the truth to make it more palatable.

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