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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46 Comments

  1. Jenni, I was born in 1963 (yikes!!), lived in Latta SC, population 2500 and two stop lights . I grew up on a tobacco farm that belonged to my grandmother and mostly employed African Americans and I was taught to respect all people regardless of their skin color. Some of my fondest memories are of working in the pack house “taking off tobacco” and getting paid 2 cents a stick! I am very thankful for My upbringing! I passed this respect on to my daughter who loved babysitting children of all ethnicities! However, in the last few years I’ve see an undercurrent in this country that makes me wonder who is spreading the hate!?!?! There are forces on both side that are pushing a very dangerous agenda…..and that frightens me!

  2. Amen! We didn’t have any black friends growing up because we didn’t have any in our town. But we did have plenty of friends of Mexican descent. We didn’t think anything of it and we all got along. I moved to a larger town and starting working for a company who employed people from all nationalities. I made friends who were black, Hispanic, Thai, Vietnamese, Colombians, people from Manila, China, Hong Kong, London, etc. and I’m proud to say that we all got along very well.
    I’m sure it’s how children are reared. My son had friends in school and never had any problems relating to race. Parents need to set an example for their children and not teach them hatred and bigotry.

  3. What a wonderful and insightful message! I grew up in Michigan in the 50’s. My dad’s best friend was black and our families always celebrated holidays together. It was only when I reached junior high school that racism became apparent to me and it appalled me. I could not then, nor now, tolerate it. I never have understood how or why any person thought they were superior to another. I stood my ground and many people over the years have turned their backs, but at least I let them know exactly what I thought. I find the attitude and ignorance of our government disgusting and can only hope the people of this country will see it for what it is. I have never judged someone on their race, religion or sexual orientation. All people deserve respect, until they as individuals show that they don’t.

      1. Thank you. I can only hope that more people will realize how wrong prejudice and bias is! People are people, we all bleed the same color blood, we all experience joy and pain the same. I will never stop defending what I believe, that all people are created equal.

      2. My mother was so non confrontational, she always told me to look down and keep my mouth shut. Didn’t work! If a thought comes into my head it comes out my mouth. I feel so angry when people or animals are abused in any way. I do not hesitate to step up, first time I did I was eleven and I have stood my ground ever since. Yeah to big mouths who are not afraid to say what they believe. 🙂

  4. I remember so many people asking me, over the years, if I experienced anti-Semitism in France, what with the reputation the French have for being anti-Semitic. I always answered, some, yeah, but I also experienced it in the USA. I read something today about racism being more than hate – it’s those reflexes, its privilege, its the assumptions, its expectations. And you illustrated that so well. As long as we all don’t realize this, how we were raised, how we live and react… then it continues. I’m proud that so many of my fellow Americans speak up, come out and march against this hate, this evil. Thank you for your thoughtful, beautifully-written piece.

    1. Thank you, Jamie. I think shame keeps people from speaking up and admitting their own biases. But I feel much lighter now that I have. Maybe others will too. And then the long, hard, honest conversations have to begin. xx

  5. I also grew up in the deep south–Louisiana in the 60’s and 70’s–lived much of my life in Texas. My parents were not New Yorkers but deep southerners themselves. As a southerner, now educated and consider myself a Progressive, I continue to find tiny subtle ways that racism has affected my thinking. It is insidious.
    In a way, it might be good to see the white supremacists showing themselves in all their ugliness for all to see so that we can put them down publicly. I am glad to see the confederate statues coming down so that we can might finally drop that baggage and move forward.

  6. Jenni: thank you for this quietly thoughtful piece that says what so many people are thinking but don’t know how to say. I grew up quite a long while before you did, and in the north, Chicago to be exact, but much of the same happened around me.
    It took graduating from college and going to teach in Chicago’s inner city for me to realize we were more alike than different.
    I just know your piece is going to provoke much thought in our culinary community, and that’s such a good thing. ❤️

  7. Important things, well said.

    In conversations about all the recent events, I realize that my life (having lived in many places) and work (in restaurants, hotels, etc.) honed me as a person who takes DIFFERENCES for granted. Therefore, I’m struggling to communicate with people who’ve never experienced other cultures, life and work with people who look, talk, eat, worship, sing just a little bit differently.

    Most chefs know. Kind of like the military. You work alongside people to get the job done, and in the process, learn respect irregardless of color, race, religion. And so you learn to appreciate and celebrate the messy patchwork quilt of America.

    And, this is all a bit different in the South : ) as I found out when I got here 20+ years ago. Thanks for saying what needs to be said.

  8. Thank you for this, Jenni. I grew up in Maine and racism was never really a problem. Not because we weren’t racist but from the time I was born until I left for university in the South, there was one black family in the city next to the town I lived in. So we all considered we were so far above racism.

    Then when I was in my senior year in high school and my sister was already in college, she announced she was bringing a friend home for Thanksgiving Dinner if that was okay. His dad worked for the State Dept. and was going to be away for the weekend.

    Imagine my parents’ surprise when my sister’s friend was black. He was my sister’s good friend and she never thought to mention it to my parents as we’d been brought up that we weren’t racist – not like those Southerners.

    My father took her aside and asked her not to go outside with him so the neighbors wouldn’t see and it broke my sister’s heart. It also made her angry. She’s a tough broad and turned around and invited him to go for a walk. My father learned it didn’t end the world and he found her friend to be really interesting and fun.

    My point is, it’s not only the South who has history with racism. We all have to face it.

    1. Hey, Maureen. Thank you for sharing your story. Would we were all like your sister. I could only tell my story from my perspective, and I’m not sure whether I should feel better or worse that it happened all over and not just in the south. xx

  9. This is so beautifully written Jenni! I have experienced both sides of this racism – as an “ethnic majority” in the country I was born, and the minority in the countries I have called home since then. I still live everyday being mindful about what I unwittingly learnt, and what I unconsciously think, and trying to stand up for equality in any capacity that I can now – but that is with increasing fear for my and my family’s safety (not sure if that makes me selfish).

    I am hoping that history does not repeat itself, especially with wonderful people like you who resist! Thank you for writing this!

    1. The fact that you have experienced the same thing, and from both sides, just goes to show how universal the issue is, yet how wrong it is. We cannot all be better than everyone else. Why we cannot celebrate our differences and be stronger together is one of those terrible mysteries that I hope we solve in our lifetime.

  10. Here’s something you don’t hear about too often: it’s not just the South! We all like to think the problem is “over there” or “with them” but the truth is our entire country is steeped in this tea. Any fortunes we’ve gained have been on the broken backs of slaves. It’s a big ugly mess that won’t ever change unless and until we have the courage to speak openly about it. Unless and until we challenge it every chance we get. Unless and until we hold elected officials accountable. And it’s not just black or white, either. As an Asian-American I can tell you I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve been assaulted or threatened or disinvited from conversations about race because neither side wanted me to muddy their waters. Always an outsider. Not first by choice, but the perspective it affords is helpful.

    Thank you for your courage. People like you make me a little less fearful that we’re doomed.

    1. I walk this earth wearing my own distorted lenses (and trying to change the prescription), and it turns out so many others are doing the same. Lots of them apparently don’t even realize they’re viewing the world through distorted lenses. Lord, we have so much work to do, and we cannot afford to leave anyone out of the conversation, Jacqueline. Thank you for your perspective. xx

  11. What a powerful post! I can your emotions in this post. Knowing you for as long as I have, I just want to say thank you. Not just for this article, but for being you and you have been such an encourager and inspiration. Thank you for sharing a truth many will never speak on. RESPECT

  12. Great job girl! I’m sharing on my personal page – you said how I feel most times I was born and raised in a time and place that I love but I too grew up soaked in racism – and for my entire adult life I have slapped myself mentally for thinking or saying something that only moments later I KNOW is racist. It must have worked though because my daughter is obviously not racist so I feel good about staying vigilant!!

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