I had this experience as a twenty-four-year-old in this country that forever framed my perception of racism. Racism is formed from sheer ignorance with an unwillingness to embrace others unlike us. Fortunately for me, in the first 23 years of my life, I was identified only by my given name, nationality, and as my parents’ child. Never, by my race. It was not a consideration in my place of birth. Until I leave home!
I was in Morristown Town, New Jersey, in 1982 when it first happened, in an encounter with a child. I had crossed paths with this elderly woman and her four-year-old grandchild. It so happens that where we were, we had to wait for the services that brought us together. So, we sat across from each other in the waiting area. However, I was taken aback by the look of astonishment mingled with confusion that covered the little girl’s face as she stared at me with that look of shock written all over her face. At first, I didn’t know what to make of her action. But then, it occurred to me that she hadn’t seen anyone who looked like me before. So, I decided to address the situation by introducing myself to her.
“Hi?” I greeted her warmly. Hearing me speak seemed to confuse her even more. I continued, “I am Margie. What is your name?” Unsure how to respond, she looked to her grandmother, who assured her it was Ok to speak. Moving closer into her grandmother’s space, she began to relax; turning, she smiled at me.
I spoke to her for a while, then began to sing nursery rhymes I thought she most likely would be familiar with. And she soon warmed up to me. Impulsively she reached out to touch me but swiftly pulled back. Looking at me, she rubbed her arm then looked at me again. Finally, I understood what was happening and inquired of her, “Do I look like burnt toast?”
Immediately responded, “Yes, yes! The older woman became beet red, unsure what to say; she confirmed the obvious. “She has never seen a person of color before!”
Excitedly the little girl inquired of her grandmother, “Meme, I like her! Can we take her home and wash her off? I want to keep her!” I was floored by what had taken place but couldn’t help but laugh aloud in my response. This child could not be held responsible for her elders. They are the ones who are preparing her for the world.
On their departure, the little girl shook my hand while reluctantly following her grandmother; looking back as they walked away, she wanted me to accompany them. If we could be childlike in our approach, be ready, and become engaged by simply talking to each other rather than at each other? This would be a good place to start.