The first time I was called the “n” word was in 2nd grade. Yes, the first time etches itself. I even remember the name of the person who hurled the slur. Just recently my closest friend told me the taunter had had an awful upbringing; a mother with a psychiatric illness. So he was a fellow student with ACEs before that became a term.
My heritage is Southern Italian. My philosophical father was always quick to point out that Sicily had been invaded many times, by many others, including warriors from Northern Africa. As an adult I learned my dad’s uncle was a prisoner-of-war in Ethiopia; and somewhere on this earth, I have Ethiopian cousins. When visiting Italy with my Dad, it became quite clear southern Italians were essentially the others of that country–darker than the Northern Italians and considered to be less educated.
I landed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina for grad school. North Carolina is a state where an ounce of black blood makes one black; hence, the driver’s license I carried with the letter B under race, because I looked a lot darker than those who were “officially” black. The DMV provided the label.
As my new identity unfolded, I had people asking to touch my hair. My foreign roommate from France abhorred living with me. I realized I had more black friends than white. I was born-again to a different identity.
I landed a job as a radio reporter for WCHL. When people met me on the street the response was: It’s nice the radio station has finally hired a black female reporter. When I would say, well I am Italian. The excited response was: A black Italian like Franco Harris!
When Carolina running back Amos Lawrence introduced me to friends his go to line was: She’s not black; but she’s not white either. I took it as a compliment.
And when the young daughter of Chapel Hill’s first black mayor met me, she looked at her mom and said: Sue Ferrara is white and blond; that’s not Sue Ferrara. That wasn’t the first time a listener had made that comment. I concluded I had a white, blond sounding voice. Who knew?
Yes, I learned a lot during my years in Chapel Hill. I learned while hanging out with a black male medical student, he and I could hold hands at the appropriate time during a Catholic mass, but we couldn’t expect those to either side would take ours. I remember being put against a wall by a fellow female grad student–all the black grad students were assigned to the one black professor as TAs, including me. She was irate that there were not enough good black men to date and I had taken one. (And honestly, we weren’t dating. We were just good friends!) The white vice-principal of Chapel Hill high school took me to dinner. When we got to my apartment door, he gushed about always having wanted to go to bed with a black woman. Ha. I sent him on his way.
But thanks to my newly annointed identity, I went places and told stories from what had been the very invisible black community. I began to look at my chameleon-like appearance as a gift. My thesis looked at the demise of the North Carolina Film Board–an entity that died after issuing a series of films called The Minority Report. I talked to parents about segregated schools. Nurses told me what they endured after the integration of hospital floors.
After graduation I landed in Washington, DC; I added several more nationalities to my repertoire depending on who was looking. I was at times Ethiopian, Jewish, Muslim, Indian. It goes right back to that term umwelt; who’s looking, what do they see?
I had some harrowing moments. But nothing like what happened last week to Omar Jimeniez (@OmarJimenez) when he was arrested while reporting live from Minneapolis. He was the consummate professional. He had the courage of a war zone correspondent; except the war was in America, not overseas.
Now, I have a Chinese-born daughter. She most often endures racism from members of the black community, and immigrants from Pakistan and India. And why other Asians? Because while many Asians won’t discuss it openly, people in Asian countries are as racist as any other culture. I have heard the talk in private conversations. And my daughter is often taunted by the Chinese immigrants from Mainland China because she doesn’t speak the language. She recently attended a class where the Chinese instructor announced to every Chinese student she doesn’t speak Chinese. In elementary school she had classmates, born here of Taiwanese parents, who taunted her the same way.
While I am not a scholar on racism, I am someone who is fascinated by Darwin’s observations and biology. My experiences tell me racism is a hardwired part of human beings, likely leftover from our ancestors, the cave people, whose developing brains functioned for survival. And yet, racism also seems to have a nurture component to go with the nature.
My psychiatrist husband often says: What you feed will grow. And I believe that’s true about racism. The potential to become a racist is innate; how it is fed, watered and fertilized makes it grow.
Some of us think and reflect upon our actions; we see a better world; we teach our children different lessons. Too many people can’t, or won’t ponder, or grow; they are the knee-jerkers who follow people whose racist ideas resonate. We can see it throughout history. Brad Currie made that point today in an essay titled: When I was a Social Studies Teacher.
Racists come in all colors and nationalities. We can not simply conclude racism is merely black and white. We can’t miss color; but we shouldn’t let color be the ultimate determinant of a person’s character. Color alone can not tell us if someone is privileged, thoughtful, right, wrong, moral, amoral. I personally judge people by how they behave, by how they treat me and others. I have taught my children to do the same.
I ache right now as once again our country burns; and it is every American’s country. It is incumbent upon us to elevate the discourse on racism beyond black and white. We must examine racism through many lenses lest our country continues to smolder and burn. We haven’t changed; we haven’t listened. We have been down this road too many times before; what have we yet to learn?