Reposting on May 28, 2020 in light of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of white police officers on May 7, 2020. We must do better. My thoughts on Racism in the South, especially in light of the domestic terrorism we witnessed in Charlottesville over the weekend. Our country is hurting. I hope we are not broken, and I don’t know how to fix it. I know you usually come here for the food, so please consider this food for thought, because I’m a human being and an American before I’m a food blogger. Thank you for being here.

Segregated water fountains and restrooms were the norm and an outward sign of the institutionalized racism of the south.Jerry

When my brother Greg turned 8 years old, he had a Putt Putt birthday party. This was in the summer of 1975. He invited a handful of kids to come to the house, and from there, we all loaded up in the back-back of our Ford Torino station wagon and hit the road. Most of the kids either lived close enough to our house that they either walked or their parents dropped them off. Not Jerry. Jerry Arnold was an African American kid in my brother’s class. He and Greg were close friends at school. So of course he was invited to the birthday party. Jerry’s mom called mine and asked if we could come and pick Jerry up, and Mom said sure. She gave us an address on Rea Road in Charlotte, and I remember riding over there with my mom. I’m pretty sure I was in the back seat, most of me sticking through the break in the seats, elbows up like naked bird’s wings as I edged up to see.

This Can’t Be Jerry’s House

We pulled into the impressive drive and up through a broad green, impeccably landscaped lawn toward what I can only describe as a mansion. I don’t recall exactly what the house looked like, but all these years later, I’m still left with the impression of luxury. I thought to myself, “Damn, Jerry lives in a nice house.” My mom said, “Well, this can’t be right.” We didn’t get out of the car. We didn’t walk up to knock on the door to ask if Jerry was there and if he was ready to party at the Putt Putt. We just sat there in the car for a few minutes. “I just don’t know…” I can imagine my mother, having discarded the direct approach, was trying to figure out what to do. And then we drove back home, which was only about 10 or 15 minutes away. Mom called Jerry’s mom to say we’d followed her directions and ended up at a vast mansion…? The question hung in the air and across the phone line, unspoken and yet louder than a shout. “Do you really live in that enormous house?” Mom listened for a moment, and then, “Oh, well okay then. I just wasn’t sure. We will see you in just a few minutes.” At which point, we got back in the car, and retraced our route up Rea Rd, pulling into the same impressive drive, up through the broad green impeccably landscaped lawn toward the mansion. This time, we kept driving past the enormous house, and there came into view a small, wood-framed house in the shadow of the big house. We had found Jerry’s house. I recall a lot of kids and adults outside, playing catch and tag. They may have been cooking out. I don’t remember. Jerry came running up and got in the car, and off we went. I don’t remember a lot about Greg’s actual party–not remembering anything but the broad strokes of this story seems to be a theme–but I do know that at some point during the Putt Putting, Jerry got hit above one of his eyes with a putter. So we returned him home to his family full of cake and with an impressive goose egg on his forehead.

So Many Questions

Looking back with the objectivity of distance in time and several decades of life experience in my pocket, this story raises so many questions. not the least of which are:
  • Why was my mom so sure Jerry didn’t live in a mansion?
  • Why didn’t we go up and knock on the door?
  • Why was this normal?
  • How would I feel if I had been Jerry’s mom, questioned about the directions she gave to their house?
The short answer? This was the south I grew up in.

The Tea of Racism

An early photo of Charlotte, NC, where I was raised. This is what it was like to grow up in the barely “post Jim Crow” south. Even with parents who were from Queens, New York and who I never considered to be racist. But this is the tea in which we were steeped. The tea of segregation and racism. We drank it every day. It evaporated into the air and we breathed it deep into our lungs every moment of every day. It soaked into our clothes, and we were wrapped in it from the moment we awoke to the moment we went to bed. And all through the night as we slept.
Attribution: Postcard View of North Tryon Street from Trade Street, Charlotte, NC. Circa 1950. Courtesy of Durwood Barbour, Raleigh, NC. General Negative Collection, North Carolina State Archives. Call Number N.95.5.30.
Poison upon poison, we wiped away poisoned sweat with poisoned rags. Institutionalized. Normalized. Sanctioned. Racism.

Rejecting Racism

I am almost 52 years old. I know how I was raised, and I also understand the atmosphere in which I was raised. Whether or not our family were racist is almost beside the point, since we were raised and lived in a racist culture. Quiet. Insidious. Normal. If I hold my pocketbook a bit more tightly if I see a group of African American guys heading toward me, I mentally slap myself and remind myself that I was raised breathing lies. Unspoken maybe, but lies nonetheless. I reject these lies. Every day, I actively reject the way I was raised. Not my parents or the way we behaved at home, but the tenor of the atmosphere in which I became myself. I actively reject the unspoken belief that white is superior and embrace the idea that we are stronger in diversity. I actively reject the notion of being “colorblind,” and “not seeing color.” Which I am convinced is code for “Let’s just not talk about that unpleasantness.” I embrace the notion of seeing and appreciating everyone for exactly who they are. I actively reject knee jerk judgments made based on skin color and not on character. I embrace looking beyond to get to know the person behind the skin.
more institutionalized racism in the form of this sign. "Colored Patrons" was probably a considered a progressive term.
This photo was taken just ten years before I was born.
If there’s a deep, deep stain on a rug, and you don’t scrub at it every day until it is truly eliminated, it will again rise to the surface. Maybe a bit diluted. Maybe not as tarry. But there. So every day I try to wash the tea of racism out of my hair, out of my lungs, out of my pores, out of my heart. And every day, it is a little easier to see the lies for what they were. For what they are. Lies.

How White People Can Be Allies to People of Color

Admittedly, this is something I struggle with. How do I speak up for my friends who are people of color? And not just friends. Everyone. How do I stand up against injustice as a privileged white person who experiences very little injustice myself? I have come to the conclusion that I must stop worrying about doing it wrong or saying the wrong thing, I just have to show up and learn. If you are in the same boat as I am, here are some resources we can all use. My other post on rejecting racism. I wrote this after the George Zimmerman verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder. I realize that not everyone shares the same opinions about this case and also that opinions can evolve. I welcome your respectful comments and hope to start a thoughtful discussion. Thanks for taking the time to read. I appreciate your being here.

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  1. Thank you Jenni
    I am from Northern Ireland, I live in New Zealand. We have this wonderful blindness, and deafness to racism and general bigotry here. People tell me “we aren’t racist in New Zealand” and “we are inclusive in New Zealand”. But, they are not. It is as you have so plainly put it , years of being steeped in it, without actually realising or admitting it. I have always told my children, it’s often not enough not to take part in something that is wrong. Sometimes we have to stand up and say something or do something. My son very politely, and bravely,called out his colleague who made a sexist comment about the ladies doing dishes. I pointed out out to my colleague she was being racist. She told me she wasn’t racist as she had Whakapapa ( New Zealand Maori ancestry and heritage) But I told her referring to people by her perception of their religion is wrong. She was shocked – but then had a realisation of what she had said. I borrowed you words, and said we are all stained from generations of racism and bigotry. She told the story to her son – he blasted her, and said she was being racist. We have an agreement that we will point out to each other when we hear anything being said that shouldn’t. Most of us need a wee tune up from time to time. We don’t have to have a major screaming row with people- just a gentle wee pointing out. My son tells me we just need to educate people. I think your article is incredibly powerful and very awakening.
    Sorry I have gone on a bit more than I intended to – but thank you again. We just keep putting the message out there, racism doesn’t have a place in this world.

    Also your recipes are amazing- Thank you

    1. Hi, Alison, and thank you so much for your comment. When we stop and become aware of our own biases, we can see that tea we’re steeped in. It is such a huge and entrenched problem here in the US, and obviously elsewhere in the world as well. I hope for the time when we all just need a “wee tuneup” every once in awhile. Sadly in the US, there’s a lot of screaming–and worse–going on right now. I love *your* words that racism doesn’t have a place in this world. That is the ideal, and thank you for saying it aloud.

      And you’re so right. No longer is it enough to just be not a racist quietly. We do have to stand up, speak out, and actively be antiracist. Thank you and your son for being brave and speaking out. May we continue to evolve as humans so one day we can truly say we are inclusive. One human race.

      I’m also really glad you enjoy my recipes!

  2. Thank you Jenni. You put it so plainly. I was raised in the South. I identify with your story. I want a better world for all of our people..

  3. Thank you for posting this. It needs to be out there. I went through something similar and was not in the south. I was in California. I brought home a African american boy, stating this was in fact my new boyfriend. Well that didn’t go over well with my Nanny (who was A.A. also), nor with my mom living in a all white neighborhood! It was explained to me by both, not that it was wrong on my part, but wrong in others eyes and could hurt me. Today I don’t care what people think. I made my children stand strong and go with what they know to be right and that is to have no racism in our homes and hearts. I have a mixed family of white and Hispanic and there is also racism with Hispanics. We need to teach what is right as human beings.

    1. Thank you for commenting, Sher. I wish I knew the answer. All I know is that being silent helps no one, so I will speak up. Yes, we do need to teach what is right as human beings. Much love.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this post and a part of your childhood memories. I was moved to tears reading it. I hope this post reaches far and wide and people take a moment to realize that whether or not one was raised in a racist home, “…this is the tea in which we were steeped. The tea of segregation and racism. We drank it every day.”

    I feel like the media today promotes this separation between ethnicities and we really have to do everything in our power to combat it.

    Thank you again for sharing this!

    NC Blogger Network

  5. Great piece Jenni – particularly because you reflect on your own childhood – so your perspective is earned and insightful. Thanks for taking the time to dish out your food for thought – it is a courageous, righteous, and virtuous thing to do.

  6. Thank you Jenni. Your recollections and reactions are difficult for you – even difficult for me to read – yet so important. And you’re so right, racism is a tea in which all of us have been steeped. And by us I mean all of us. It affects people differently depending on who each of us is, but no one is immune from the awful, pervasive effects. Those who suffer from racism because their skin is not white are affected by the “tea” just as are those who have “white privilege.” Recent events in Charlottesville make it clear that all of us who want to rid our society of racism must learn how to battle it like the disease that it is. I intend to check out the resources that you have provided and to think deeply about my own behavior in the coming days, months, and years. As a Jew, I am particularly aware that even when one thinks that racism (and anti-Semitism) is gone, it may lurk hidden and ready to roar back. The chants, salutes, and hate spewed by the Charlottesville white supremacists sent a chill down my spine that I have not yet recovered from. If anyone thinks they are immune from that hate, I hope they will read and re-read Martin Neimoller’s words about being a German in Nazi Germany (here in poetic form): First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Socialist.

    Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Jew.

    Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

    1. I keep hearing those words in my head too. Someone has to speak. We all do. Thank you for reading and for your thoughtful comment, Laura. I truly hope it’s not too late to fix things or at least start heading in that direction. xo

  7. Thank you for sharing love and light and thank you for making our world better “one recipe at a time!”

    Courage is such a unique and amazingly powerful attribute… thanks for having an abundance of it!

    1. Thank you for your very kind comment. I don’t feel very courageous for taking almost 52 years to share my personal truth, but I sincerely hope that this post will help others do the same, let go of some of their shame, and move forward together.

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