SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2002        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Patricia Maxwell

Racism in the South

     The incident that stands out in my memory happened at a gas station in a small town in Louisiana.  An elderly white lady was pumping gas and talking to someone else as I waited to ask her for directions.  She had placed her wallet on her car while she pumped the gas.  During the time she was talking, she noticed me standing there and gradually took her wallet off the car.  The first thing that entered my mind was, she removed her wallet so that I wouldnít steal it.  At that moment it dawned on me that this elderly white lady believed that all black people are thieves.  I was born and raised in Phoenix and I had never experienced this type of racism.  I have always thought of the Southern states  as being very racist and this white lady confirmed my beliefs.

     Racial discrimination is a fact of life for many people today.  Black people are still considered dirty, sloppy and lazy people.  When you are black everyone is always looking for your faults.  If a black person is going to make it they have to be clean, honest and brilliant.  If you fail once, white people will say to each other, ìI told you so.î

     I remember being told by my grandmother that there are those who just donít like us, but to remain open-minded and always cautious in our interactions with other groups.  She also said donít forget to honor the advice of the elders, because it was their determination and courage that brought us this far.

     Discrimination persists in many areas of life.  There is still unequal pay, discrimination against black women and men in the workforce, housing, schools, etc.  I used to think all white people were racist, but I know there are nice white people in this country and in my family, but many white people donít give black people credit for a thing.  I think black people were the backbone of this country before and after they were freed.  They were the maids, cooks, undertakers, barbers, porters, etc.  Regardless of achievement or economic status no black person can hope to escape the stigma of color.

      My sister Linda was present during the discrimination incident in Louisiana.  Linda doesnít get agitated like me, she just shrugs it off.  Our father used to say, ìYou catch more flies with molasses than vinegar.î  He believed you could get further in life by being nice to people.  This is easy for Linda to swallow. Linda is molasses without even trying.  She can sweet-talk the world, or play dumb, or whatever it takes to get by without a fuss.  Linda was the one that got the directions from the white lady.

          While waiting for directions a small white church caught my eye, it reminded me of the old southern style of Sunday morning service.  The sermons were simple and I understood them at my young age.  To this day the church gives me comfort and a special kind of love.  While the preacher is preaching the congregation will shout ìAmenî and echo many of the things he is saying.  When the preacher would get into what I call high or third gear, it was called whooping.  Whooping is a powerful and highly rhythmic way of preaching in which words take the form of song, half speech and half melody.

     The style of gospel singing during my childhood was considered the Golden Age of Gospel.  Gospel music nourished my soul and it gives me a belief things do get better in my life.  Today gospel music is similar to hip hop and it sounds like rap and rhythm and blues.  Gospel singers are bringing the world into their music.

     The smell of food cooking reminded me of the after-church dinners.  I could smell the aromas from the church kitchen across the street.  I could smell the chicken frying in those huge black cast-iron skillets; I could taste the baked macaroni and cheese and ham hocks and candied sweet potatoes swimming in butter and cinnamon, the homemade ice cream hand-stirred by the older sisters in the church.

     The white lady in my incident talked with a southern country voice.  Her voice was that of someone who likes to give orders, especially to black people.  She sounded like the white women on slave plantations who gave orders to the slaves that kept the house clean.  As a slave you couldnít respond as someone that was educated, you would have to respond with head bowed and a bad vocabulary.

     As I think about the incident today, I guess it could have happened to anyone other than a black person.  Because I am black and at the time was in a southern state I thought of the incident as racist.  As soon as the elderly white lady looked at me she immediately removed her wallet from the trunk of her car.  My sister Linda thought she was a very nice lady and gave her very accurate directions.  Being an elderly white lady her parents probably lived through the slavery period and taught her not to trust black people because they were thieves and lazy.

     The civil rights movement changed a lot of things for black people, but it didnít change the minds of all racist white people.  The civil rights movement was a time for this country to come to terms with race issues, but the Vietnam War slowed down the progress and so did the lack of leadership after Martin Luther King Jr. died.

     For people of color, the development of a constructive racial identity requires being able to recognize and reject the negative stereotypes and to embrace a history of resistance and empowerment.  African Americans have a long road ahead to reach a level of equity in a world of economic unbalance.  As a society, we pay a price for our silence.  Unchallenged personal, cultural, and institutional racism results in the loss of human potential, lowered productivity, and a rising tide of fear and violence in our society.

     The United States is now a place where a person can be free, free to come and go as they please, free to live where they want, free to vote and free to run for political office.  There are people, white and black, who still have the urge to change the world.  The truth is, youíre born a certain way and there are some things you can change, and some things you canít.

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