I've seen a lot of things. Just in the last year, I witnessed an execution, the slow, oily death of almost a third of life in the gulf of Mexico, wrecked communities torn to shreds by a fierce tornado, and a room full of people agree with a man speaking to them who said we should repeal the 15th amendment. But I've never actually heard someone say "I'm a racist." Especially in the 21st-century in Jackson, Mississippi of all places.
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I live in the same city where the Freedom Riders helped end the segregation of public transportation.This is the same city where Medgar Evers made a name for himself as a cornerstone of the Civil Rights movement. This is the city where a united, grassroots effort stood up to Haley Barbour and the unjust imprisonment of the Scott Sisters, and didn't stop fighting until the sisters were freed. This is the city where black folks make up 61% of the population. I would have thought this was a city where people don't just blurt out "I'm a racist" to someone they just met.
My Saturday was going pretty well until mid-afternoon. I had just finished nude modeling for an art class at Millsaps College. Everyone there was kind, conversational and easy-going. In between 20-minute poses, we talked about politics. The room was full of progressives of all races. These were open-minded folks who fully believed in equality, inclusiveness and new experiences. For some odd reason, I was at ease in the center of a room full of strangers studying and drawing my naked body.
On the way to the studio, I saw a flyer someone had posted who was looking for a roommate. The rent was cheap and the name posted was Russian. I called her, told her I was interested in potentially living with her, and scheduled a time for us to meet after the drawing class. She sounded young, conversational and friendly over the phone. I was excited.
When I met her, I was stunned by her beauty. She was tall, blonde, graceful, well-spoken and flirtatious. We talked for a little while and learned about one another over coffee. I told her about hosting couchsurfers from all over the world, and she told me about how she's traveled all over from Russia to Kazakhstan, Dubai, Canada, Amsterdam, and all over the United States. She said English was her second language, but she could've fooled me; her accent was completely American, and she understood my fast native speech. She also knew French, and Russian is her native tongue. I was even more impressed when she told me she wasn't even 21 yet. We were hitting it off just fine- she met my eyes, laughed at my jokes, and told me she was ready for me to move in as soon as possible. Then, while I was telling her a story about a recent adventure with a friend of mine, I used the word "homeboy." She stopped me, confused.
"Home...boy? What's that?"
I laughed politely. "It means 'friend,' I explained to her. "Most of my friends are black, so I borrow their colloquialisms from time to time out of habit."
She looked down at her coffee and took a drag from her cigarette, not saying anything.
"What?" I asked her.
"Well...I'm a racist."
At first I thought she was making a bad joke, or poorly using sarcasm. I furrowed my brow.
"Yeah. Well, I didn't used to be until I moved to Jackson. I got along just fine with black people in New York and Virginia. But now, it's like I just want to order a pizza over the phone, and I can't even understand what they're saying. They're so uneducated, and ignorant. They just make me uncomfortable." She said, matter-of-factly.
I was so stunned by the ugliness of what she just said, and how she felt so comfortable saying it out loud in this town, in the year 2011, to someone she had just met ten minutes ago. I was amazed at someone so open about their racism, even decades after Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and countless others fought, protested, experienced persecution and brutality just so they could eat at the same restaurants and use the same bathrooms as white people.
After that remark, she wasn't beautiful anymore; she was repulsive. A cold feeling set in my gut. My heart hurt. I was suddenly aware of how chilly it was outside, and how much her cigarette smoke was stinging my nostrils and crawling down my nasal passages into my lungs as I breathed in. It actually made me physically ill to be around her. So I stood up and put on my coat.
"Where are you going?" She asked. "I haven't even told you where my place is yet."
"Sorry, but I'm not going to live with you," I said. "I don't have anything else to say to you."
As I walked away, I noticed she was looking down at the table, her cigarette still in her fingers. Her hand was quivering. I hope she was ashamed about what she had just said.
"Best of luck finding a roommate," I yelled back to her as I climbed into my car. She looked up at me, the surprise in her face still as fresh as it had been a moment ago. "And hey, open your mind a little bit."
With that, I pulled out and drove away. Looking at her in my rearview mirror, I noticed she was still looking down into her coffee with a stunned expression. I don't think she even noticed her cigarette was shedding ashes on the table.
I learned something today.
I learned that you can still be a world-traveling, college-educated, tri-lingual, entreprenurial, multi-faceted human being and still be just as clueless as the village idiot. I learned you can have a classy and beautiful appearance while harboring an ugly, hardened heart on the inside. I learned that someone can have a big brain filled with information and knowledge while keeping it closed off and unused. It doesn't matter who you are, where you came from, or what year it is- racism is still very much alive and prevalent. And we still need to come down on it as hard as we can whenever we encounter it, even if it's a family member, an elder, or a physically attractive well-traveled young woman.
I really do wish her the best of luck finding a new roommate. And I hope the only person she can find to live with her is a patient black woman willing to teach her to open her mind and set aside her prejudices.