On Race and Racism in America: A Personal Reflection in Two Parts

I had a pretty safe and stable childhood as far as childhoods go. I was lucky enough to be born into a loving, white, middle class family and grow up in a leafy, overwhelmingly white, middle class suburb of Chicago. As a child, you aren’t always very aware of how lucky you are compared to other children when your parents are happily married, your mother stays home while your father works, and his wage provides enough for three square meals a day, a roof over your head, the bills being paid, and you wanting for very little of what you need. (That is different from wanting for very little of what you desire.) The microcosm you live in shelters you from the harsher corners of the world and indeed, the real, grittier nature of life itself.

So I was a very lucky child, and I never ever take that all for granted.

When I was young, we did get into the city a bit. My Great-Grandma lived in an subsidised studio apartment on Dearborn and Elm, so my Mom and I would get down to the city to see her. My Dad also worked at Carson Pirie Scott on State Street as a furniture buyer for the department store chain, so I sometime was able to tag along with him downtown too.

These expanded my experiences, even though I was younger, of people who were different from me. And I have to interject here that my Mom and Dad, and my Grandpa and Grandma, were also very open-minded people who taught me to respect and interact with people no matter how different they were from me. I am eternally grateful for having such loving and respectful people as such strong role models growing up.

At Carson’s, an older African American woman worked as my Dad’s secretary. Her name was Marge. These memories are from when I was 6 and younger, so I can’t recall a ton from that time, but I remember Marge’s spirit very well. She was a kind, caring woman who exuded this very positive, very inviting energy.

One time, my Dad needed to do something in an office area in the open-plan office, and I was sitting with Marge at her desk. She engaged me, and I was drawing pictures for her, and she was so warm and encouraging. Somehow, she also reminded me slightly of my Oma (my Dad’s mother), so that also drew me to her too.

As cliched as it sounds, I never really saw Marge as “different” from me. She was a good woman I could trust and who showed me love and care, and motivated me to develop my talents. Whenever I think of her — and while she was a minor player in my life, my mind does return to her every now and then — her strong, kind spirit stands out the most.

My Dad left Carson’s when I was about 8, so I didn’t get to see Marge ever again.

I do know that when Marge passed away, my parents went to her funeral. She had lived in a predominantly African-American part of Chicago itself, so my parents would have stood out quite a bit. From memory, I think they were the only white people at the funeral. But her family treated them with such love and inclusion. Marge may have been a secretary in title, but she meant a lot more to my family because she was so much more than that.

I just wish I had had the chance to see her again and tell her thank you and listen to her and her story. She was such a beautiful soul.

An interjection, if you will.

People who know me have heard me say (on rare occasions) that I “do not see color” and treat people on their own merits.

The meaning behind what I say is that I give every person an equal opportunity or more because fairness and equality are important to me, but even more importantly, I see a person for their soul and their personality over and above anything else. I seriously often get lost in the spirit of the person and identify them by that trait than anything else.

Reading things in the last few days, I understand that people saying, “I don’t see color” can also make a person whose skin tone is different from my own understand that as, “I don’t respect or understand or acknowledge the cultural richness, the daily struggles, the oppression, the discrimination (openly or overtly) you experience and you face because of the color of your skin.”

I get that meaning now too, and while it wasn’t ever my intent to imply or believe that, I understand where you are coming from, and I hear you loudly and clearly.

I am constantly changing, learning, and growing, much like we all should throughout our lives. I can acknowledge and accept when I am wrong, even if what I say or do was with the best intentions but ended up hurting someone else inadvertently. Anyone who knows me knows I do not like hurting people.

What I do mean is this: “I do not judge you by the color of your skin.”

I think that’s an important distinction to point out.

I was working at Carson’s at Randhurst Mall during a break from university. It was a really slow day, and I can’t recall if I was working by myself in the department or if my colleague was on lunch. The area I worked in was in Men’s Pants and Dockers, and by this time, the mall had access to the second floor where I worked through an air bridge between the mall proper and the main aisle my station was at (albeit I was at the other end of the building in a near straight line).

An African American man came to my department and started browsing. He was dressed well — not that that was a prerequisite for shopping at Carson’s but he took a pride in his appearance — and, like I did for every customer who stepped foot into our department, I came out from the cashier’s area and said hello. I asked him if there was anything he needed help with, and he did, so we proceeded to look at different options.

Now, a personal note: I hate it when shop assistants tail me, and I am a person who tries not to do the things I hate others doing, so when the conversation came to a point where the customer was trying to decide which pair of pants or whatever was best, I would ask them if they had any other questions, and if they didn’t, I would tell them I would be stepping away but they could come to me (over there, pointing to the station) with any further questions they might have.

So that is what happened in this case too. He had quite a few different options, and I thought it would be best he should try them on for the fit and look by himself.

I can’t remember the entire exchange, but at one point he stopped me and said something like, “Can I tell you something?”

It confused me a little but I said sure.

He explained that he had been in the mall shopping around for a few hours before he came to Carson’s. During that time, he was either avoided or he was shadowed around different stores. (The implication here between us was the added part of, “because I am black.”) Here, he explained, I did none of those things. I treated him as a human being and as a valued customer, and he appreciated that.

I didn’t feel proud.

I felt sad, and I felt angry.

Not quite sure what to say, at first, I apologized to him. I told him that it was upsetting to hear about his experience, and it wasn’t the image I wanted him to have of the town I grew up in and loved. And I explained helping customers was my job, and I was paid to do that for every person who walked into my department, no matter who they were. My goal was to supply him with the same level of service and advice I would give to anyone else, irrespective of if he bought nothing or a gazillion dollars of pants.

We spoke a little bit about the pants he chose (because, from memory, he did take some of my advice), and then he also explained about other pants he had selected. I learned a few things I hadn’t known about — we were encouraged to push certain brands of pants over other brands, so I wasn’t always 100% familiar with some brands — so that was helpful too.

Feeling bad about how he had been treated, I spent more time with him. Maybe I was overcompensating for his bad experiences, I don’t know, but it did break my heart, and I wanted him to go away from Mount Prospect with a positive experience in the end.

Part of me wanted to ask him if he wanted to buy anything else at other stores in the mall, and tell him I would be an ally and go with him so he could get what he wanted. But another part of me was too afraid to do that. There sometimes is a fine line inside my head where I feel I might step over it to arrive at the “socially inappropriate” side of that line.

I hesitated, and I didn’t do that.

He thanked me again, quite sincerely, for my help, and I was honestly moved by his experience and his deciding to tell me about it. From my heart, I wished him the best and offered if he was ever back in Mount Prospect and needed more help at Carson’s, to come and see me and I’d help out as best as I could.

I never did see him again, as life often unfolds.

But when I saw yet another African American man lose his life at the hands of a uniformed man on TV the other day, one of the first people I think about is the man I met all those years ago at Carson’s.

It’s 20 years later now, and our brothers and sisters with different skin tones from us, whether that be brown, black, yellow, or another equally beautiful color, are still suffering, still being mistreated.

This breaks my heart.

This makes me angry.

This makes me exasperated and frustrated.

We should not be in a place where a black man is killed by a group of cops who believe they are judge, jury, and executioner.

We should not be in a place where a black woman is killed sleeping in her own bed by a group of cops.

We should not be in a place where a black man jogging is gunned down by a group of white men just because he looked at a house under construction.

We should not be in a place where a well-respected black journalist is reporting live on television for a well-known news company and is arrested by a group of cops.

We should not be in a place where a segment of society is treated as cannon-fodder for another segment of our society.

We shouldn’t be in this space at all, America. We should not be in this space.

Please do what you can to make things better.

Demand change.

Work constructively towards improving the world.

Listen to our brothers and sisters who are suffering and underprivledged.

Hear their stories, let them speak, let them move you.

And then ask: what can I do to help?

It might be difficult, it might be emotionally raw, it might be overwhelming at first, but we need to improve things.

Let’s start helping make the world a better place today.

Your words, and your actions, even if they seem small or insignificant, matter.

Be kind.