Grinding Progress in an Instant World

The best friendships are based on the character of the individual, without regard to skin color. Pictured: I’emari Grace , Tyler Nelson. Photo Credit: Debbie Nelson

For two years, I debated whether to write my own experiences as a young woman who moved to Mississippi for high school, stayed for college, and left for thirty-five years before returning to the same college.  My transition from the cosmopolitan culture of the Air Force Academy community into the coastal Mississippi environment was far more difficult than I imagined. Of course I knew the Civil Rights movement achieved great things to bring equality.  I did not know racism up close and personal – that was history.

Mississippi in 1975 was very different than I expected. I felt like I might drown, the air was so full of water. I learned to tie a chicken bone to a piece of string tied to a stick and lower it into water. Within moments, the former delicacy called crab came crawling up the string and more latched on. A fancy dinner was free! I learned about flies the size of quarters which flew in swarms and bit worse than bees sting. And I saw people in eerie white hoods who marched in town parades. Much to my dismay, the police did not intervene. I thought it criminal, though locals suggested neighbors wore the disguises. I saw racism, up close and personal.

Today I balk at terms thrown in accusation by people of every color when it comes to racism. I silently cheer when I hear Morgan Freeman being interviewed by a handsome news reporter who asks about racism, and Mr Freeman says it’s a non-issue because both are African-American who achieved success through hard work and determination.

I am tired of being lumped into a category of “not being able to understand” simply because my skin is a different color. Isn’t that the point of racism? Someone else making judgements based on color of skin?

Alysia Burton Steele’s Facebook post inspired me, commenting on the December 5, 2014 article “Everyone deserves acceptance and happiness” written by a female college student at Penn State.  Ms. Charley Ukwubiwe, shared her personal experience as an African-American, who feels unwelcome at a college with 3.87% black population. In Ms. Steele’s post, she shared her personal experiences with acceptance in the late 80’s through mid-90’s as well as her thoughts today. Having voice is crucial in dealing with topics and effecting change.

As someone who enjoys showing others hospitality, as someone who cares about people, not skin color, I’ve struggled with whether this caucasian woman would speak into an atmosphere where my words might easily evaporate or be dismissed because I was born white.

I don’t think there’s anything more uncomfortable than not feeling welcome. I moved every year as an Air Force brat,  always new to school, community and neighborhood social circle. Rarely was I welcomed in public schools. Most kids had been friends since kindergarten. I was mocked for unusual clothing styles and once had a code name assigned to me so that in conversation, I laughed along with others, unknowingly laughing at myself.  But the most unique experience was being in high school on the Mississippi coast during 1975 through 1977.

My racially diverse Colorado friends did not find mixed race dating unusual.  We read about racism in history class. Moving to the South was like stepping through a time warp. I wanted to write to someone in authority, to ask if they knew the KKK was still marching in their sheets in community parades. But the police were there, so I just studied the anomaly to my world. When I asked a male classmate to stop by my house so we could study for an important test, I was stunned at the reason he refused — because his family wouldn’t have him befriending a white girl. People were living such strange choices. To me, Civil Rights happened a “long time ago”, and it took me quite a while to see the relativity of time in this issue.

My newly divorced mother became an activist, requiring my siblings and I to join the NAACP.   I was as welcome in their midst as the young woman in the Penn State article. My sister was entered in the Miss Black Teen Biloxi pageant. She won first runner up. I was incredulous – what on earth was going on? The words didn’t match the reality. What an outlandish attempt at living up to the circle of crossed hands, embraced as we sang “We Shall Overcome” while being on the receiving end of looks that could kill. We learned to hold our heads up and be pleasant even though others were unpleasant to us. My mother didn’t give us a choice and I rarely speak of those times. But they made a profound impact on me and how I raised my own five children.

I’ve realized real change happens after the older generation passes on. No wonder there is grinding progress. People and their prejudices are living much longer now. About a decade ago, my children and I were new residents to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. My youngest son came home asking what it meant to be called cracker and vanilla. I laughed, thinking, “Really? That’s all you’ve got?” Absurdities of prejudice. How ridiculous people are to one another. We focused on good behavior and bad behavior, not skin color.

One day I wrestled a shopping cart from a jammed line of carts at the grocery store. I turned to see an elderly African-American man walking toward the carts and offered him mine. He scowled, saying, “Oh no. I don’t take anything from your kind.”

Taken aback, I paused, then continued from a different perspective. “Oh.  Well I’m not from around here. Where I’m from, you help each other,” I said sincerely. My boys nodded in agreement, and again I offered the cart.

He tilted his head inquisitively and repeated, “You’re not from around here?”

I replied, “No, Sir.”  He mumbled a thank you as he pushed the cart into the store.

Our next door neighbors wouldn’t allow my son to befriend hers – she was a single African-American mom, working hard, protecting her family. My son, undeterred, respected her rules and stood along the property line chattering away, day after day, until they allowed him to be on their lawn. Months later he was allowed into their house. Eventually he came running home, breathlessly asking where his Bible was because he had to write a sermon! He was all of 11 years old. His new friends agreed to let him lead Bible study. My son always looked for opportunities to tell people about God’s love, the kind people are supposed to show each other and often fail miserably.

I can’t change what happened in the past. What I can do is live with respect toward others today and all my tomorrows and teach my children to do the same. I can share my experiences, risking all the words that people hurl when you’re different or you dare to speak up. I can befriend people based upon their personality and behavior, not their skin color, like I’ve done all my life. Moving to Mississippi didn’t stop me from viewing people for who they are, not what they look like.  I just can’t make other people behave well. But I can’t make them behave badly either.

I heard a term recently has been unpopular for nearly a decade: Personal Responsibility. I’ve lived coast to coast and yes, 45 years after the end of the 1960’s I think it is about time to say this is a sin problem, not a skin problem. We all know how we are supposed to treat others. The color of the skin does not determine the quality of person.

We don’t choose what we will look like when we are born, who our parents are, nor where on earth we are born. However, each of us is personally responsible for our own behavior. We will influence others, and we may inspire others, discourage others, or intimidate others. But the fact is, we are only responsible for our own choices and our own behavior. How will we use that responsibility to influence or inspire others?

Ms. Steele has written a glorious tribute to African-American grandmothers, honoring the matriarchs of their families, called Jewels in the Delta. Ms. Ukwubiwe has written an article for her school newspaper. Although I do not match and my life has not shared the same kinds of racism, I’m posting a glimpse of my story here on my blog.

I don’t know what the fallout will be, whether my words will be ignored because I was born white, or whether my words will be respected, from one human experience to another. I have a voice, too, and I am just tired of people telling me I have no idea what it’s like not to be welcomed nor accepted because of my skin color. If we all were expected to behave with respect or face consequences, what would we do?

If we woke up tomorrow with a different skin color, would we continue to treat people the same? Choosing to behave with mutual respect and personal accountability plus a whole lot of persistent kindness will continue to lead the way as we grind toward progress in this instant world.


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