I’m having a hard time coming up with a topic today, so I guess I’ll fall back on this old standby. It’s not what you think, though, so keep reading.
When I was growing up, I never noticed anyone’s color much. I noticed what language they spoke instead. Living outside of Washington, DC in a bedroom community, we had a pretty mixed bag when it came to the racial component of my grammar school. We had Asians, Africans, African-Americans, Indians from India, white kids who were divided kind of along religious or ethnic lines (Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Germans, Irish, Scots-Irish, Latin Americans, and who knows). Sometimes during recess we’d take turns trying to figure out our OWN ethnicity, and most of it wound up being imaginary anyway, unless we were lucky enough to have someone from a less diverse point of origin on our kickball team.
It was always a toss-up as to what language was anyone’s mother tongue, regardless of what their faces or skin looked like, so I learned to merely hope for coherent English in a seatmate. I was very forgiving of bad English, though, if my seatmate had cool ethnic clothes or a Mom who sent excellent exotic cuisine along for sharing.
I wasn’t even aware of racism until it made national news. “Black is beautiful” confused me. How come only black was beautiful? Why wasn’t purple beautiful? Or fuchsia? Fuchsia was my favorite crayon color. I liked purple and fuchsia and turquoise and umber and lots of other colors. I was kind of literal-minded. My parents had no clue as to what to tell me at that young and tender age, as neither one of them had ever said a racist word in my hearing. They had to obliquely and uncomfortably refer to something I’d overheard at some mixed gathering elsewhere. I remained unenlightened as to the extent of the problem.
It continued that way on through Junior High and early High school, when the most noticeable difference in pre-teens and teens was hair. Some folks were big hair people, others were long hair people, some were short hair people, and we were all wearing basically the same style of clothing and going to the same classes. I still had classmates in linguistic transition, so it really didn’t seem like much had changed. I freely admit to being an oblivious child, unaware of the tensions and problems in the larger adult world.
When I was 16, I moved to Chicago to live with my Dad and Step mom, and I found out about racism. From the other side. I was thrilled to be a teenager in the big city and to be with my Dad and Step mom. It was great, it was cool, and I felt ten feet tall. My high school, an all-girls Catholic school, was a little weird, but I made friends and felt free.
A few months later, I was in the swing of being a city girl in many ways, but I was still a little wary of riding the bus somewhere new by myself. I was also a little homesick for southern food. My Step mom was a great cook, but she really didn’t get grits, not as a concept or a food. She thought they were breakfast cereal like Farina. Field peas were also new to her, although she would remember to serve black-eyed peas for New Year’s dinner for good luck. There was no cornbread, no red hot dogs, and no REAL barbeque. I couldn’t cook much myself, so my taste buds remained unhappy.
One day I wanted to go out to the Sears on Irving Park Road to get some ordinary clothes like underwear and sweats, and so I took the bus by myself. Ooooh. I was so proud of myself. As I goggled out the windows, westward bound, we passed through a long stretch of mostly industrial buildings, and a sign caught my eye. “Chitlins” it said, “Field peas and snaps”. My eyes bugged wide open and I started to drool involuntarily. “A restaurant with real food,” I thought. “I’ll have to get the address on the way back and make sure to come here some time when I’ve got some extra pocket money and it’s near mealtime!”
I thought about that restaurant for a good three weeks. I dreamt about eating an entire plate full of field peas and snaps and woke up mad as hell that it had only been a dream. Finally, all circumstances were right, and I hopped on a westbound bus, eagerly anticipating a meal so splendiferous that when I wrote to my friends back in the South, they’d groan with envy.
The “Field Peas and Snaps” sign was still in the window. I focused on it. I felt my purse as I climbed down from the bus, just to make sure that evil spirits had not absconded with my Peas money while I was looking elsewhere. I crossed the street, pushed open the door and headed past crowded tables over to the counter, where I took a stool and smiled from ear to ear at the waitress.
She just looked at me, agog. I asked her if I could get some field peas and snaps. She stared. I started to feel uncomfortable and noticed the restaurant was really unnaturally silent. I looked around me. Everyone had stopped as if they were frozen in time, like the opening scene in a Twilight Zone episode. There were little grizzled old men in berets, young men in t-shirts and jeans, middle-aged ladies in slacks and polyester blouses, and a couple of giggling teenaged girls in jeans and shirts, pretty much like mine. They were all staring at me.
“Did I say something wrong,” I asked in my Virginia peanut-accented voice, “are there no more field peas? I can’t find anywhere else that sells them, and I really miss them.” I felt tears beginning to prick at my eyes.
“Honey, you need to go,” said the waitress, “this ain’t the place for you.”
“But why not?” I asked. “I just want some good southern food for once. I can pay for it! I won’t be any trouble. I’m an honor student!” I hoped that would buy me enough credibility for her to let me stay. I honestly thought the problem was that I was an unaccompanied teen, and they might figure I was up to no good.
“No, that ain’t the problem,” said the waitress, at which point a little old man in a plaid shirt and some neat, clean work pants came over and tapped me gently on the shoulder.
“Honey,” he said quietly, “Haven’t you noticed you’re the only white person in here?”
I looked around me, and the tears started to pour down my face. “Am I not allowed?” I asked, and I felt ashamed and confused.
“It’s not that,” he said kindly, “it’s not that. Let me walk you back to the bus stop, and I will stay with you until the bus comes.”
“I didn’t know I wasn’t allowed,” I said to the waitress and the room at large, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. At least let me leave you a tip for your trouble,” I said, and started to rummage in my purse.
“No,” she said, “Don’t. Just get on out to that bus stop.” I won’t pretend her tone was kind.
And so, with the little old man’s hand gently on my arm, I stumbled, embarrassed and humiliated by my stupidity, out to the bus stop. He was very kind and quiet and gentle, and he asked me where I was from. I told him, sniffling and trying to stop crying, and I apologized again and said that I just got all worked up when I saw the sign because it reminded me of where I grew up and the good food we had there. He said he understood, but that I’d have to look for somewhere else and not come back there again. The bus pulled up, I got on, and he went back to his meal.
I rode around on that bus for a while, got a transfer and rode some other buses until I had myself under control again. I wound up stopping at a McDonald’s and eating a wholly unsatisfactory fish sandwich and some fries, which, for the most part went cold while I mourned the loss of hoping for southern food in Chicago. I sadly slurped up my small orange drink and realized that I now understood a little bit of what everyone had been talking about when they talked about racism.
It wasn’t that I had been discriminated against that bothered me; it was the realization that I had invaded someone else’s safe territory and was viewed as a hostile interloper. I had been treated kindly and carefully, and sent back to where I belonged – with white Yankees gnawing greasy, tasteless fast food. That little old man wasn’t kicking my tail, he was doing his best to keep me safe in case some hothead decided to take umbrage and take me apart. It was a lot to take in.
I never did wind up eating any field peas and snaps, nor any cornbread nor barbeque while I lived in Chicago. I have since taught myself to cook them the way I like them, and my kids like some of these foods, and my husband is tolerant of my culinary quirkiness.
Sometimes I think about how that little old man did his best to be straightforward and kind to a naïve white girl, and I am grateful that he had better sense than I did, that he made sure I stayed safe until I could get back to where I “belonged”. I am grateful for having my eyes opened, and for understanding a little better what people mean when they talk about racism.
I have told this story to my children on occasion, particularly when I hear them picking up the nasty lingo of friends who have learned racism from their parents or others. I ask them to put themselves not just in my shoes, but also in the shoes of all the people in that restaurant. And I ask them to think about what it means, not just to be called names, not only to be treated with obvious noxious behavior, but also to think about what it means to spend a lifetime “not allowed.”