When I woke up this morning, it never entered my mind that along with what would be one of the top ten most beautiful days of early summer; with bright blue skies, fluffy white clouds and a delicious breeze that silenced all window air conditioning units in our home. It would also be the day I met racism in a way I never have before, and it shook me, and it enraged my youngest daughter.
If I could rewind the incident, I would follow my daughters lead fast. Stop smiling, stop trying to explain my point of view, disagreeing without being disrespectful and walk away. She did the right thing. She stopped talking, turned her back and walked away. Leaving the woman flabbergasted and rushing to hear herself state she was not a racist. Neither of us had used the word, why did she? Because she was guilty of being one. That simple act of turning your back and leaving silently shouted volumes. But I was frozen to the ground trying to rationalize with someone who could not be rationalized with, someone who was as hard and cold as the stones around her.
Anyone who knows me, knows I like rocks. I’ve asked friends and family who have had the opportunities to travel to bring me small stones and pebbles from the different places they’ve visited. I have rocks from Japan, China, Singapore, England, Ireland, Sweden, and Slovenia. Stones from beaches, mountaintops and the bottom of canyons. They are placed in jars, sitting on the mantle in bowls, and tucked in tabletop water fountains. Others are balanced Cairns in the yard. Today when I woke up, I knew we had planned to visit a place we’ve always passed when we’d be going someplace else, and say, we’ve got to stop there one day and look around. A large area filled with various building blocks, granite, slates and river rocks, each placed on a pallet secured with heavy mesh wire. A rock lovers dream!
Sloatsburg, New York is not far from us, but it’s one of those towns on Route 17 that you take to go through on your way to the Renaissance Fair, or apple picking, or to visit friends in the town of Warwick. There are a few watering holes, a few old stone churches and potholes my Jeep seemed to disappear into and climb out of the other side! It is an old town. Old buildings, old architecture and apparently this individual has a very old worn out personality, but she looked like she was my age and I don’t consider myself old. Yes, I admit I’ve said old timer sayings like, “She has the personality of lint!” or “He is not worth the real estate he’s standing on.” But this person’s personality was as cozy as shards of glass, broken pieces of concrete and twice as cold as marble without the luster.
When I saw this person, who I assumed was the owner, my first signal should have been her lack of a smile. But I gave her the benefit of the doubt, I tried to start a friendly conversation, but was quickly shut down. When someone turns their backs and shakes their head, that’s a good sign they really don’t want to converse, but I was told we could look around. We did. But my youngest child did not join us, she had brought her camera and found a large boulder to perch on while we explored. Several minutes later we noticed she was having a conversation with the woman and was pointing our way, little did we know she was being questioned, no, more like interrogated – why did she have the camera? Why is studying to be a photojournalist? What was she taking pictures of? Is that your family? Where are you from? My daughter shared the interaction with me later. Funny thing was she couldn’t answer one of her questions without her rapidly forcing another. It felt like an assault, not a conversation.
As my husband and older daughter continued to explore a different part of the property, I joined my youngest daughter, wrongly assuming the conversation they were having was pleasant. Oh, boy was I was wrong. It started when the woman stated she had changed grocery stores for ones that had more white people shopping there. (Wait, we were just looking at rocks). She began to bash illegal immigrants and that they deserve to lose their children who are falsely saying they’re being abused. (What?) “They are all taught to lie, they come into this country angry at what we’ve got so they can’t help but steal.” What went from a beautiful day together, taking a ride to visit and possibly purchase building materials for a fire pit, suddenly turned dark overshadowed with a person spouting hate. When a person groups an entire ethnicity or nationality together and drills in the point of mass assumption, that EVERYONE behaves this way because of their race, they themselves are a racist. At this moment, even the breeze stopped blowing.
When this woman realized my daughter had just shut her down, ignoring any further statements or questions squared her shoulders and walked away – panic set in. She began to babble, she wanted to know why my daughter was so upset and was it because of what she said, and “I” was to tell her “she” was not a racist. Funny, she used the term not me. When she saw my husband was black, she quickly asked which black. I looked at her puzzled, my oldest daughter now pulling on my arm that we needed to go, and go now. The woman’s anxiety rose, she frantically rushed to say, “I have a black friend!” That alone is a panic statement, do you categorize all your friends? I have a white friend, I have a Jewish friend? Really? It’s not your ‘friends’ that are the problem – it is you – it is in your head.
Statements like, “I have a black friend.” are wrong. So are generalizations, for example, “Woman love men who have beards.” Innocent enough right? Some woman do like men who have beards, but to say this type of blanket statement immediately take the individual out of the equation. You strip them of their individuality. Which was exactly what this woman did. But her veil was lifted, she exposed her own narrow-mindedness racist self and was shocked that we were not going to get caught up in her hate, we were not going to agree or engage with her, we were never going to do business and there was nothing she could do to stop us from leaving. She ultimately shot herself in the foot – twice. As we walked to the Jeep, she frantically called to us to please come back, please buy rocks from her, please know she wasn’t a racist! Her cries hit the rocks she had surrounded herself with.
I felt nothing. No empathy. No patience. Nothing. Here was someone my age, that when we first arrived I had planned to introduce myself to, strike up a conversation and ultimately buy the stones I was searching for. It didn’t happen. It won’t happen. So why am I still shaking? The trip home was quiet. Each of us lost in our own thoughts. The experience sat heavy on our shoulders. Why? Because you can read about it, watch it on t.v., or listen to someone else’s account of it, but when you are faced with racism and it stands directly in front of you – and it’s coming from someone who looks like you – it is beyond troubling. It makes you think of those civil rights era pictures of those who were refused service in diners, of people being blasted with a fire hose, having dogs teeth tear away at your arms and legs, being kicked and punched by those sworn to protect you, but no, instead they swear at you. Prejudice and racism are alive and well in America today. Like it or not, it is taught and thriving. So what am I saying in this blog? All I ask is that you give it some thought, how will you handle it when it looks you in the eye? What will you say? Will you stand and scream back, or will you turn your back and walk away leaving the person alone wrapped in their own hate?
My youngest daughter taught me how to handle racism today with pride, grace, and dignity and I am forever grateful and very, very proud of her.
Breathe Deep, Think Peace
Patricia Young has been married to her husband Warren for almost 32 years. By the way, she is white, he is black and their children are beautiful. Note: rocks were acquired for free from a much friendlier person that even helped load what was needed to build a fire pit. Now, to find some wood!