When I first thought about moving to the area about 10 years ago, I interviewed at my current place of employment (I’ve since left and returned). One of the people interviewing me asked if I would be comfortable living in the South.
You see, I’m black. African American. Colored. Whatever. As long as you don’t call me stupid.
I’ve seen racism. Not the kind my father fled growing up down east in the ’40s and ’50s. You know, where you couldn’t get an education much less a job.
What I’ve seen is much more paternalistic and patronizing, less overt. You gotta know your place.
I’ve come to realize that the South where I live today has changed quite a bit. It’s a place where a black man can marry a white woman and have kids and have all of them live (so far). I get reminded of our predicament more often when we head back North. My wife and I have given a number of people whiplash.
But, I think I’ve gotten comfortable and a little complacent.
About 10 years ago when I moved here, I traveled down east to a function with my dad’s family. While riding around the area with my cousin, I spotted a community pool. My parents and I had visited the area many, many times before but I could never remember seeing that pool. I asked my cousin if he’d ever been there and he said, “Are you kidding? They’d drain the pool and fumigate if someone black ever went swimming there.”
On a recent Sunday, I volunteered to help clean up after our church hosted families from the Guilford Interfaith Housing Network. The GIHN is a group of churches that provide housing and meals to homeless families with children. Despite going to this church for a couple of years now, my wife and I had not been very involved in its outreach ministry. So, I volunteered.
I had fun. Everyone was nice. Made a connection when another gentleman saw me wearing my UNC sweatshirt (My wife’s a grad; I’m just a fan). He was wearing his, too. We moved couches, set up the computer room, etc. It really meant something.
I said my goodbyes, signed out and headed out to my car when I saw a young man I had seen many, many times at service. He often sings and plays with the contemporary band. I waved and he waved and as he passed, he asked very thoughtfully, “Did you guys have a good night last night?”
Now, my wife and I usually go to the 6:30 Saturday night service so quite naturally I thought he was talking about that. So I said, “We really enjoyed ourselves, thanks!”
Then I got into my van. And it hit me. He thought I had spent the night at the church as a GIHN “guest.”
I guess I shouldn’t take it personally. At least that’s what my wife told me after I got home. I thought about it for awhile. Then I spent four-and-a-half hours trying to work out my stepfather-in-law’s computer problems and I put it out of my mind. Until now.
I’m trying to work out why I feel this way. We recently moved and now live between a doctor and his wife and a man who travels to Asia quite a bit for his company. We’re middle class. Much more middle class than the middle class my parents ever achieved. At least by the debt standards of today’s middle class.
Do I resent being thought of that way? Why should I? I’m just a little luckier. It could very well be me. I’m always cognizant of that.
We chose the church we attend because of its outreach ministry. They’re doing, not preaching about doing. We’ve been well received. I’ve only seen three other black people in church in the couple of years we’ve been going, but I don’t go to every service so I don’t know how many more there are.
I’m not going to make too much of this incident. After all, the church was hosting homeless “black” families. But the faces of the homeless aren’t all black. Are they?
And this incident does not compare to the time I was up North in a convenience store parking lot sitting in my car when in the crappy van next to me a 3-year-old leans out the window and says cheerfully, “Hi, nigger!”
I’m going to keep the church incident in context. And I’m just going to let it be a reality check for me to make sure I’m never too comfortable.
Because even today, you can’t be.