Intersections – Red flags
By Nicki Salcedo
When nine people are murdered in their place of worship, the problem isn’t South Carolina. The problem isn’t guns or mental health issues. The problem isn’t the lack of education that first causes subtle biases and later hatred.
The problem isn’t the rebel flag.
The problem is believing that racism is some distant concept that lives only in South Carolina. A lot of people unknowingly contribute to racism in America. The problem is thinking that you aren’t part of the problem when you are.
When I arrived at Stanford, my freshman roommate’s first question to me was, “What was it like growing up in Georgia? It’s such a racist place.”
She’d never been to Georgia. She was from Long Beach, California. I was from Stone Mountain, Georgia the rebirth place of the Klu Klux Klan. I considered myself shy as a young adult. Shy, but not soft spoken.
“How does it feel to come from the home of the Rodney King riots?” I asked.
I did not experience overt racism growing up. Maybe I felt different. I knew when I was being watched at the pool, but no one ever called me the N-word. I’ve even seen a Klan march once. They held up traffic on Memorial Drive one Saturday when I was a kid. The cops on duty were both black and white. There were no spectators except those of us trying to get to Northlake Mall that afternoon.
My college roommate attended a high school with one black student. It was one of those fancy Southern California private schools that had a “The” in front of the name. Her parents were both doctors. Psychiatrists. She smoked pot. On weekends her boyfriend would drive up so they could have sex in the common room. She thought I was backwoods.
She saw no irony in the lack of diversity in her life or in her attempts to follow every spoiled-girl cliché in the book. I learned about racism from her.
I learned about racism on a business trip to Manhattan as an adult. When I entered the office of the publisher, I spoke to the receptionist while we waited for our meeting to start. I have the habit of talking to receptionists and servers at weddings and maintenance men in hotels.
“You are the first black person I’ve ever seen go into a meeting with Mr. Smith,” she said in a whisper. “I’ve worked here 20 years.” She smiled at me proudly. In the distance, I could see the water of the Upper Bay and the Statue of Liberty.
That night we dined at a place called Gotham. No matter how hard I try to avoid clichés in my life, they find me. Mr. Smith sat next to me. I was the only person of color, any color, in the entire restaurant. Usually there is the busboy or the lady in the coat check or someone in the kitchen who looks like me. Someone Asian or Mexican or Indian or something. There was nothing but a sea of white faces. For all of my uncomfortable moments in life, it was the first time I knew with certainty that racism was not a Southern thing.
It is easy to blame Bubbas and rednecks, but what about communities absent of diversity by exclusion? I never experienced true racism until I got to San Francisco and New York. Maybe those cities would reject the idea that they are racist, but as I’ve moved into adulthood I’ve developed a new awareness of what racism looks like.
When I moved back to Atlanta, we had a period of time when we were looking for a church to attend. We visited black churches. We visited white churches. We visited integrated churches which meant a handful of black people at a white church or a handful of white people at black church.
We visited a church in Decatur several times. Each Sunday, we filled out the visitor form and said we’d like a call or visit from the pastor. Each week, no call came. On the final Sunday we attended, an old woman in the church turned to us during the welcome portion of the service. As we shook hands she said, “You know there are a lot of other nice churches in Decatur.”
I was not welcome in their house of worship. I understand. Racism is quietly everywhere. Well, get out your rebel flag. Wave it on Sundays and Saturdays and during Wednesday night Bible study.
Don’t talk to me about South Carolina. Don’t talk to me about guns. Or the Confederate flag. There are other ways racism is perpetuated that are more subtle and dangerous. I’ve seen the red flags.
I don’t need everyone to love each other and hold hands and sing “Kumbaya.” We don’t have to all get along.
We do need to stop lying to ourselves about where racism hides and what to do when it shows its face. The face of racism is born out of a lifetime of being separate by convenience, by choice, for comfort. In New York, in L.A., in Atlanta.
I’d like you to tell me why I was the only black person at your wedding and garden party. Tell me why you don’t have any Jewish friends. Tell me why you don’t read books by Asian authors. Tell me why you don’t like Indian food, then explain further that you’ve never tried it.
Don’t tell me about South Carolina. Don’t tell me who you voted for. Don’t tell me about that red flag while ignoring the others. Tell me about your life and how we are the same and where we can find intersections. I will listen. I will believe you.
Nicki Salcedo is a Decatur resident and Atlanta native. She is a novelist, blogger, and a working mom. Her column, Intersections, runs every Wednesday morning.