I grew up in a pretty white-bred place.
Cherokee County Georgia in the 1980s and 90s was much less developed than it is now, so I’m sure the demographic makeup has changed drastically, but when I was in high school, Sequoyah High was something like 95 percent white. It was actually noted among the whitest public high schools in the state in a news article looking at voluntary segregation in Georgia and why people lived where they did.
My experiences with people of color were limited during my school days. We had maybe three or four African Americans in a senior class of around 300, one of whom I hung out with regularly. We had maybe a few Hispanics and a couple of people of Asian descent, otherwise, it was basically a bunch of white people. So my understanding about people being treated differently because of skin color didn’t really sink in until I saw it first hand.
After graduating from the University of Georgia, I took my first reporting job at The Mitchell News-Journal in North Carolina, a weekly paper also owned by Community Newspapers Incorporated. My friends, including a black woman and my college roommate from Perry, whose parents are Arabic, arrived unannounced at my house one night while I was working late as a surprise visit. They had a dog with them and dogs were not allowed at the house I rented from who I thought was a nice older lady next door. They tied the dog to the front porch and came to my office to surprise me.
Just as they walked through the door of the office, I received a call from my landlord telling me the dog was not allowed and she needed to be gone immediately. When my friends ventured back down to my house, the landlord emerged from her home and proceeded to yell at them, telling them that her “husband didn’t build this house to have (N-words) and Mexicans staying there.”
First, my roommate was not Hispanic in anyway, but his skin is darker than mine. Second, he and my African-American friend had done nothing but try plan a nice surprise for their friend. My landlord had shown her true colors.
When the group returned to the office, I was appalled. I called her and made it clear that as a tenant with a signed lease, I was allowed under state law to have any visitors I wished at the house I rented. I told her she was out of line and that her behavior would not be tolerated.
We took the dog and spent the night at a nearby cabin to which we had access to avoid further confrontation, but the impression had been made.
But it doesn’t stop there. My African-American friend had gotten a speeding ticket in McDowell County on the way to my house that weekend. She wanted to fight it in court, so she came back a month or so later for her court date. I awoke the next day and left for work, shortly before she left for her court date and locked up behind me. When I returned home, my landlord came out from her house and told me she wanted me out, immediately, and that she had gotten our neighbor to bring his shotgun to accompany her into my house while I was at work because a black person was inside. It was such a gross display of racism, I was speechless. Thankfully my friend had left already and there was no confrontation.
The eviction never happened because I already had plans to move, but we had to call a deputy out to tell my landlord where she had erred. Even in that discussion she insulted the white deputy’s best friend and colleague, who was black.
Before then, I never considered just how deeply rooted the seeds of racism really are. I was naive to the often subtle signs of a person’s true feelings about race. My friend had committed no crime. She was a standout student, her high school valedictorian and a future radiologist studying at Duke University. But my landlord, and my neighbor too apparently, had made up their minds she was a threat because of the color of her skin.
I can never truly understand what it is like to be a person of color in America. When I am pulled over by police, I typically don’t “fit the description.” When I jog through a neighborhood where I don’t live, I am not chased down as a suspicious person. I am generally not seen as a threat.
For a few moments back in 2005, though, I got a glimpse into how different our lives can be in this country. Those memories have come rushing back recently following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis. I think back to that and realize that though the actions of a few do not necessarily indicate the hearts of the many — whether in police officers or rioters — the changes sought by the protests in how we think about race and our differences in this country are long overdue.