SBS 301 Cultural Diversity         Fall 2001        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Judy Siegel

 I remember it now almost as a silent, slow motion film; maybe even as a dream where I could not move quite fast enough.  Many years ago, I was staying at my sister's home during a summer visit to Phoenix.  I borrowed her car to do some errands.  Upon returning home, I mistakenly made a left turn instead of a right one and ended up heading south instead of north.   Being totally unaware of my error, I kept on driving in blissful ignorance toward the "other" end of town.  My inattention to the direction I was headed was suddenly interrupted by the realization that things did not look quite familiar.  I thought of turning into a gas station to ask for directions when I began to notice that everyone I passed on the street was staring at me.  I also noticed that there wasn't a decent car on the street.  They were all beat up old wrecks with dark peeling paint and many large dents.  The neighborhood was very rundown.   Everyone looked hot, greasy-haired and dark skinned.  Some of the men had no shirts on.  All the houses and buildings were only one story high and there was nothing white, just old, dirty looking structures and dark skin.  There were things lying on the ground.  I don't remember seeing any green grass, just dirt.  It was blatantly different from the neighborhoods I was used to.  I felt as if I was trespassing on someone else's territory.  There also seemed to be an awful lot of people just milling around with time on their hands.

  Not only did I begin to feel rather nervous and out of place, but to my horror, I suddenly remembered that I was driving a  new CADILLAC.  Well, once that thought arrived back in my brain, I was SCARED.   My heart seemed to drop into my stomach, and  I finally understood why all heads were turning as I drove by.  I was definitely in the WRONG place.   I was white, light-haired, well dressed, and in a fancy new car.  I could just feel those people's eyes fixated on me.  It felt as though I had done something wrong.  My gut reaction was to turn around as quickly as possible and head north, no directions necessary.  I felt surrounded by the walls of my car, shielding me from what was on the outside.  It was my protection.    My initial thought was that I would be hurt, or else the car would be, if I had continued along much further.  But more than that, I was overcome by the feeling that not only was I different from everyone else, but that I was also very much alone.

 As I drove out of the neighborhood, I noticed a young Hispanic girl sitting outside a house on the front steps.  There was a look in her eyes that I recognized when she looked at me but I couldn't quite put a label on it.  It didn't convey the anger and resentment I expected, and somehow my fear was no longer there.  It was as though, for a moment, we had traded places.  In my mind, I pictured myself as this girl:  I was sitting on the front steps outside the house.  It was a hot summer day in Phoenix and we could not afford to keep our house cool enough.  Besides that, I couldn't stand being cooped up inside that tiny house with eight other people trying to live together as if we were one big happy family. That could never be.  The smell of the tamales my mother was making actually smelled better outside than inside the house.  If I closed my eyes, I might have even thought I was sitting outside of a nice Mexican restaurant instead of an old house with peeling paint.  I was thinking how nice it would be to buy a new blouse instead of this ratty old one I was wearing when out of the blue, it was as though someone from "The Bold and The Beautiful" had come to life on my street.  A beautiful Cadillac came driving down my block.  The driver was a white lady with strawberry blonde hair.  I couldn't believe my eyes.  I couldn't help but stare as my mouth dropped open.  After the initial shock wore off, I wondered what in the world she was doing here. Wasn't she afraid she'd be ripped off?  Hopefully she would pass through before my brother's gang caught sight of her.  Maybe she got her kicks by driving through the slums.  How come some people get everything?  I knew it must be cool and comfortable inside that car and I could only imagine what a nice house and nice clothes this lady must have. If only I had been born white and rich!

    After I had made my way back to familiar territory, I felt very relieved.  I also felt very  sorry for those whose lives I had invaded, forcing them to look at someone parading her cushy lifestyle in front of them, a lifestyle they couldn't have.  But I also could not forget the young Hispanic girl sitting on the front steps.  If it wasn't anger or resentment, or even longing in her eyes, what else could it have been that looked so familiar?

 After reading about how other races have grown up with so much fear because of the persecution they have experienced at the hands of white people, my perspective has changed and I now know what look I recognized in the girl's eyes.  It was a fear just like my own. I was perhaps correct in assuming that some of those people might hate me and want me gone, but I  now perceive somewhat differently the reasons for their feelings.  I never saw myself as someone who would intentionally harm another human being or deny them their just rights because they were not like me.  Because of this, I never spent much time thinking about the possibility that any minority might feel any kind of threat from me.  The fact is, I do know about the horrible injustices and unspeakable cruelty inflicted upon human beings by other so-called human beings for reasons that I cannot truly comprehend.  The holocaust of World War II is a blatant example of this.  I do understand violence stemming from fear.  (In some cases, I guess that can even be a fear of losing power.)  But even then I don't understand the degree of pleasure that some people seem to get from such acts of cruelty and violence against others, or why they carry it so far, especially against people that seem so innocent.

 I can now view the reaction of minorities to white people as similar to my own experience of having been bitten by a dog when I was six years old.  No matter what my head tells me, whenever I see a dog running lose, my body feels paralyzed with fear.  It is an uncontrollable gut reaction to having been attacked and harmed by this type of creature and the possibility that it could happen again is always looming.  I never looked at it this way before, but it is the best analogy I can now make.

 When I fearfully drove my Cadillac through that poor neighborhood, I never could have imagined that anyone there might actually fear me, or the white, well-off presence that I represented.  Maybe the jealousy, anger and resentment I was sure the South Phoenicians felt were not the dominant emotions of all those who stared at me so poignantly; perhaps there was fear in their hearts as well as mine.

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