Yesterday, in the 5:30 a.m. class, during a discussion about their upcoming poster projects, Hank had the students draw sketches of the first time they experienced prejudice personally. This prompted a lengthy conversation about the subject, which reminded me of an incident that is never far from the front of my brain anyway.
I like to consider myself an open-minded person, someone who tries hard not to judge people in general, and especially not according to such things as ethnicity or cultural background. And this despite the fact that I was raised in Powder Springs, back when people of color lived literally “on the other side of the [railroad] tracks.”
When I left for college, I didn't even know what a Jew was. So when I came home one weekend and told my father about my new boyfriend, whose last name was Lichtenstein, I didn’t understand all the questions he proceeded to ask me. In my father’s defense, he didn’t appear to have a problem with it; he seemed more curious than anything, probably about how the boy’s parents felt. (They did NOT approve, by the way.)
All this to say I grew up in a white-bread town and had a white-bread perspective. College in Athens (UGA) opened the world up a little wider for me, and my group of friends was actually quite diverse. Still, I did catch myself crossing the sidewalk when someone “other” was headed my way—someone whose skin was a different color, or whose clothes and hair looked dirty, or, hell, any man who looked like he could take me—that nut of fear lodging in my chest. Pretty much, all men over four feet tall were suspect, unless they looked like ice skaters. Like Flannery O'Connor's Mrs. Turpin, I tended to sort people into categories.
That cross-the-street tendency got worse over time, and more so after I had children. Then I’d have to scramble and fight the wheels of the stroller, sprinting through traffic to get away from whatever strange man I might have spotted a mile up the road. He was probably packing heat, you know, or had some GHB in his pocket. At the very least, I was sure he’d ask me for a cigarette, coughing on my baby.
Then, one day, something happened that turned my fear on its head—something I think about often, rolling it over and over, unable after all these years to determine what it means exactly or how I should apply it to my life in a positive way:
It was a sunny day in the Morningside neighborhood of Atlanta, a very nice, expensive part of town, where the houses started at half a million, in the late 1980’s. We lived in an apartment near Emory University, and every day I’d jog through this area, slightly paranoid that some man in a white utility van would mistake me for a rich socialite and try to kidnap me.
On this particular jog, though, a car full of young women, twenty-ish, passed me in a gold Camry. There were four of them if my memory serves, and they looked much like me at the time (I was 28 but convinced I didn't look it)—young, white, All-American, good teeth. I waved at them as they approached, the way I’d always wave at old people, or at anyone who reminded me of myself. But when they got close enough to where I was running on the sidewalk, one of them leaned out the back window and swung a big wooden paddle at me, yelling, “Take that, Bitch!” I jumped out of the way, just in time, felt the breeze of it on my face.
I was stunned. At that moment, my reality shifted. How could this be happening? What could they possibly have against ME, a run-of-the-mill white woman with a small kid and an infant at home? I assessed what I was wearing—nothing skanky, nothing trendy, the usual gym shorts and t-shirt, neither grungy nor torn. I wasn’t loaded with make-up and my hair was in a neat ponytail. Completely innocuous. I turned off the main drag and went down a side street. I’d begun to get my bearings again when here they came for another shot. More swinging, more obscenities, and they weren't playing around. I had to cut through several yards to lose them.
Having successfully retreated, I stopped. I walked home shaking, completely defeated. If those girls weren't safe, then who? It would be weeks before I’d run on the street again.
The lesson made me re-evaluate my prejudices. While I suddenly had to fight the urge to Fear Everyone, I clearly understood how ridiculous it was to judge someone is by his or her appearance.