You know those essay contests, where they invite you to name something that changed your life, or your Ah-Ha moment, or your biggest regret, or your celebrity crush, or whatever? (I’m looking at you, Ben Affleck.) I’ve never considered entering those contests, mostly because I don’t want to write an essay (I left grad school behind long ago, thanks), but also because I didn’t really think I’d had any of those moments. Life-changing experiences, sure. Influential people, absolutely. Middle school ceiling plastered with posters of Charlie Sheen (pre-winning and much more Ferris Bueller), oh hellz yes. But I didn’t think there was a singular moment.
Turns out I was wrong.
It was the summer of 1995, between my sophomore and junior years at Connecticut College. I had signed up to work for the LEAP program, an organization that — back then, anyway (it may have changed somewhat over nearly two decades) — paired up college-aged kids with inner-city children in a summer camp environment… except much more hardcore. Rather than bunking in a quaint cabin or hiking through woodsy trails, we counselors would live in the same housing projects as our campers, spending our days pounding the hot inner city pavements while doing educational and fun activities together. I knew that it would be intense, but I was looking forward to working with the kids, to maybe making a difference. I didn’t anticipate that the greatest difference would be made in my own life.
When I arrived in New Haven to begin several weeks of training before meeting my campers, I quickly discovered that mine was one of very few white faces. Nearly everyone — all but a handful out of many dozens of people — was black or Latino, college students from Conn (like me), Yale, or nearby Quinnipiac University. I had never before been a racial minority, and it was both intimidating and eye-opening. As the days passed, I began to see that difference not as a burden, but as a gift, peering through a peephole to see what it might have been like to be a person of color, someone who is a racial minority moving among white peers. I soon learned, however, that despite my seeming newfound understanding, the brief glimpse I’d been granted was just that: a passing glance, a toe dipped into an enormous lake.
As part of our training, our New London crew (leaders, counselors, and junior counselors) embarked upon an actual camping trip — tent sleeping, cooking over fires, engaging in trust falls and writing exercises, all designed to help us get to know our co-counselors more closely. I thoroughly enjoyed the activities and found my fellow counselors – many of whom were from Conn, but who I hadn’t really known prior to LEAP – to be funny, trustworthy, and fascinating.
On the other hand, I was unsure how they felt about me. Me, the privileged white girl. The girl who had few non-white friends, and whose previous introduction to diversity consisted almost solely of joining a Jewish friend in trying to convince our middle school principal to include Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah alongside Christmas on the school calendar. (The principal had promptly phoned my mother, asking her if I was considering converting to Judaism. She asked if he was insane [but not in so many words], and informed him that, shockingly, friends sometimes help other friends. The Jewish holidays were added to the calendar the following year.) I was keenly aware that I was different, that I’d never before experienced how unsettling it can feel to be in the minority. I liked my fellow LEAP-mates tremendously, and so wanted to be thought of as a buddy and not an outsider.
Doubts continued to plague me until the final night of our trip. Sitting at a picnic table next to the fire, we were asked to share our impressions of our camping experience. When it was my turn, I was hesitant, but decided to risk embarrassment and admit that I’d been nervous, afraid that I wasn’t accepted, that no one liked me. The moment I uttered those words, I felt arms encircle me from behind in an enormous bear hug as David (not his real name), one of my co-counselors, squeezed me tight and said, “Aw, Emily! We love you!” I was elated.
David was a big guy, a tall black student who was also going into his junior year at Conn. I vaguely recognized him from school — an art major, perhaps — but knew little else about him. He had been relatively quiet during our camping adventure, which I initially thought indicated his indifference, or perhaps even contempt, toward me. Now, I knew that he had simply been keeping his thoughts to himself, and – to quote Miss Sally Field – that he liked me. He really, really liked me. I was a buddy. Yes!
Upon returning to New Haven, our training continued for at least another week. At some point, David, two other counselors, and I went out to lunch together, dining at a small restaurant near the Yale campus. I was again the only white participant, but by this point, it had become a non-issue for me — for all of us. We talked about race, about our upbringings, but it wasn’t a problem, merely a starting point for conversation. We also talked about much more than race; we were, after all, friends.
Once lunch was over, we had some time to kill before we needed to return for training, so we decided to peruse a few nearby shops. I can’t remember what they were, but given that they were within walking distance of Yale, they were undoubtedly typical college town establishments: record shops, clothing stores, drugstores, places to buy beer with fake IDs. The final shop we entered had long aisles with numerous shelves and hanging racks at the back, so we split up to check out the merchandise. And that’s when I noticed her.
The clerk – the only salesperson in the entire store, and the only other white person I’d seen in a while – had been sitting at the cash register by the door when we came in. Now, although we were the only customers, and although we weren’t touching anything or asking her any questions, she had gotten up from her cozy chair and begun to walk slowly around the store. I remember thinking that it was so strange, her moving around all of a sudden for no reason. She wasn’t engaging us in conversation, wasn’t hovering to make sure we didn’t unfold the t-shirt stack. Instead, it seemed almost like she was following us.
I soon realized, to my horror, that I was only partly right: she was following. But she wasn’t following all of us, and she certainly wasn’t following me. She was following David. Every aisle he turned down, she was there. Each time he stopped to look at an item more closely, she slowed, keeping him within easy view. She wasn’t blatantly on his heels, but it was incredibly obvious that she had fixed her attention on him and was watching his every move. It was flabbergasting. There were three more of us in the store. We were all the same age, from the same program, in town for the same purpose. If any of us was touching the merchandise, it was me or our other two female friends; David merely kept us company as we window shopped. But he was followed, for absolutely no reason… other than that he was a young black male.
I was dumbfounded. David! She was following David! David, who had bear-hugged me and welcomed me into the group, accepted me as a friend, despite my starting off as an outsider. David, who was no more likely to have stolen anything or committed a crime than my grandma. David, who was spending his summer in the New London projects in order to help inner city kids. David, who would soon welcome my presence as the only white person at a true (and awesome) “Yo’ Mama” contest (my first and only). David, who, later that summer, would help shepherd me into my apartment after one of the residents accosted me in the urine-filled elevator, and my male LEAP counterparts – fearful of my safety – put themselves at risk to make sure I made it home safely. David, who was doing nothing at all except being himself. An artist. A student. A counselor. A son. A friend. A young black male. And that was all it took to make him worthy of close observation.
I’d heard of things like this before, of course. I may have been living as a sheltered white girl, but I wasn’t entirely stupid. Still, I had never seen it with my own eyes – I’d never watched, aghast and mortified, as a completely innocent person was assumed to be up to no good because of his race. At first, I was horrified. As time went on, I became livid.
I attempted to find some kind of justification for her behavior. Perhaps she had recently been robbed by a young black male, or perhaps some kids who looked like David had vandalized her shop or other shops near her, and she was nervous, even prudent. Perhaps, however, she had simply been indoctrinated into the idea that black men do bad things, and so every black male automatically looked suspicious to her. Regardless of her reasoning, the outcome was the same: David was assumed to be doing something wrong simply because of the color of his skin.
I approached him about it, indignant, furious, and shocked. How could this have happened? It was blatantly unfair. It was awful. I was so sorry.
He listened to what I had to say but then, for all intents and purposes, shrugged it off – not because he didn’t notice, not because he didn’t see exactly what I’d seen, but because he had become so accustomed to being viewed as suspicious, it no longer even occurred to him that it was newsworthy. That was just the way it was. Perhaps he seethed inside; maybe he swore under his breath every time he was treated like this. But all I ever saw was him shrug it off, and then go back to being David. We had training to complete, kids to work with, and our lives moved on.
For him that experience was nothing to get worked up about, commonplace. For me, it was life-changing, and I’m not using that term just because I have a flair for being dramatic. Even though the clerk wasn’t being overtly racist – wasn’t calling David names or refusing him admission to the shop – her actions spoke volumes. I’d grown up assuming that such attitudes were long extinct; that woman proved me wrong.
I’ve never forgotten it.
I am not trying to make sweeping statements about race in America, nor about race relations in 2013. I am not tying this to the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case, although certainly the discussions regarding the verdict have gotten me thinking and led to my writing this post. Since that summer, I have been out with black and brown friends (and, of course, my husband and my daughters) and have seen them treated with respect and kindness, not because of their behavior or their skin color, but because they are human. Likewise, I have seen people of all races and genders — some of them my own students — be presumed guilty of crimes they never committed, because those proclaiming guilt made false assumptions with no facts in place. I am not saying anything is irrevocably broken, nor do I consider myself to be an activist. I am simply talking about my particular experience that day in New Haven, and how it shattered my notion that people no longer judged others because of the color of their skin; and, therefore, how it changed the way I see and move in the world.
It’s only recently that I’ve realized that the lesson I learned that day had a flip side, one with equally important consequences. I never worry that I’ll be stopped by the police, unless I’m actually doing something wrong (no texting while driving, I promise). I don’t get followed around stores. I have never been instructed to use a bathroom separate from the main restroom, and the only time I’m detained at the airport is when I have one of our service-dogs-in-training with me. I float through life largely unnoticed – by my neighbors, by authority figures, by other adults. Some of this is because I don’t purposely draw attention to myself, and some of it is that I, like many of us, generally find myself surrounded by people who, by and large, look like me. But part of it – the part I’m not consciously aware of, the part that many of us are not doing consciously – is because I’m a white female, someone who, we tend to think, is not up to no good, so there is no reason to pay me any unnecessary attention. I absolutely take this lack of attention for granted; in fact, it’s so not on my radar, I almost don’t know it exists… until I think back to that summer of 1995.
Having only been a white woman (at least, that I remember…), I, obviously, don’t know what it’s like to walk in anyone else’s shoes, and certainly not those of someone with black or brown skin. But I remember that glimpse through the peephole, that toe in the lake. I remember being the only peach face in a sea of tans and browns, being instantly doubted by my campers’ parents because I was a well-off white girl, and being shown outright hatred (because I was white; they told me as much) by some inhabitants of the housing projects where I’d spend the summer. I can still feel their withering glances and how it almost physically hurt to be called horrible names. I can also still feel my own indignation and confusion: But you don’t even know me. Why do you assume that I won’t be a good counselor? How can you distrust me when I haven’t given you any reason to do so?
It was easy for me to avoid their judgement and persecution if I’d really wanted to; I could simply, literally, walk away. I could return to my dorm at Conn, or even just drive down the street, and I would no longer be the only white girl around. How fortunate for me, no?
Eighteen years removed from my LEAP summer, I am still just as fortunate. In fact, I am privileged. I live in a wonderful, safe neighborhood. My daughters attend a fantastic public elementary school. Nick has a stable job with a good company. We make enough to make ends meet, but still have enough left over to take vacations and buy random apps for our iPads. I am healthy. I am happy. I am privileged.
I know, too, that I am privileged to be a white female. Truthfully, it’s not something I think about often, but perhaps I should. With privilege comes responsibility, and while I don’t feel that I can easily change the world and make it a fairer place, I can change my world. At the very least, I can acknowledge how fortunate I am, and be grateful for it.
I’d rather not do the very least. I’d prefer to do a bit more. I’m not really the attend-a-rally type, and my thoughts on race are too jumbled and discombobulated to turn them into a soapbox. But I do like to think, and I sure as hell like to talk. And so that’s what I’m going to do. Think, and talk – in my head in the shower, out loud to myself in the car, and now “publicly” in this forum. Then maybe I’ll think some more and talk with friends… and, who knows, maybe someday I’ll lead a rally. But for now, this seems right.
I owe it to David to tell this story. (For the record, David and I fell out of touch when our LEAP days were over. Although I haven’t seen him in years, I have it on good authority that he’s a married dad now, and has started his own consulting firm. I hope he counsels women like the one we encountered that day in New Haven.) I owe it to all of the Davids out there to tell this story, not because it’s unique, but because it is so commonplace, it’s often overlooked. I owe it to my friends who have never experienced such judgement. I owe it to myself, so that the lessons I learned are not forgotten.
Perhaps most of all, I owe it to Ella and Annie (who, themselves, are not white) – not because I want them to know how horribly people can treat one another, but because I want them to know how awesome David was, and how his story is too important to be disregarded. Peering through that peephole was an incredible gift; I want to share it with my daughters, so that they, too, can think and talk, and eventually, do.
Maybe, just maybe, one day, that they’ll share David’s story, too… And I hope it’ll begin with, “This is the craziest thing — can you believe it?” We have a long way to go, but the journey will never be made if we don’t start. I’m starting today – with this leap.
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