I grew up in the South, where race is deeply rooted in history and everyday life. The man my mother married uses the n-word as much as some people say hello. My grandma, when talking about how her neighborhood is changing, always whispers, “It’s the blacks,” as though saying it quietly makes it okay. We were sitting at a stoplight one time when a black man walked by; my grandmother clenched her purse and hit the automatic locks—automatically. When I was in high school, flyers were posted in all the bathrooms showing a black hand shaking a white hand, yet my algebra teacher once got a ticket for going one mile over the speed limit in a predominantly white neighborhood—she was black.
But I always considered myself different from them. I knew very early on that I needed to get out of the South. I was always open-minded and progressive—I felt like an alien growing up there. Even though bigotry exists everywhere, I hated the particular and insidious ways that religion, racism, and homophobia drenched every moment of Southern life. I would not let people say racist things in front of me. I educated myself about different cultures and sought a more complicated and realistic version of history. I didn’t want to be simply guilty about the past; I wanted to be a part of change.
After I graduated from college in Virginia, I moved to Atlanta. I had my BA in English and was moving there while looking into MA programs in cultural studies. I was passionate about social justice, my eyes were open, and I was proud of myself for being so “liberal.”
I took the first job I could get when I moved to Atlanta. My friend was working in a restaurant in Decatur, and she got me a job doing prep work in the kitchen. I had worked in food services since I was fifteen, so I was comfortable in the kitchen. I mostly cut vegetables and fruit there, shelled beans, and occasionally, I would wash produce. Nothing glamorous. I worked alongside a black woman named, Ms.’Lil. She was probably in her fifties, a mother and grandmother, and so sweet and nice, she made me feel so welcome. We hit it off and spent all our time at work talking about life.
One day, all of us in the kitchen were talking about something; I don’t remember what. What I do remember is the conversation splitting into two sides, and somehow I was the unofficial ringleader on one side, and our head chef, Prince, was on the other side. Prince was a pretty quiet guy—he worked hard, had a family, and mostly kept to himself. The conversation wasn’t a fight or anything, in fact, I remember it being lighthearted, but it still came down to two viewpoints and Prince and I were squaring off.
And then it happened. We were in the middle of our debate, and he said something I thought was funny. I laughed, and said, “Boy, you are crazy.” Not boy are you crazy, but boy—you are crazy.
Let me put this into context before I go on. I was a twenty-one-year-old gay white girl fresh out of college. There were always men in my social circles, and I was always great friends with gay and straight guys. But something happened along the way where guys became “not-men” to me. I think it was probably because there was no possible sexual/romantic possibilities between me and men. I called my guy friends “boys” all the time, regardless of their race. It was affectionate of course, but there was something about it that gave me some power.
When I came out as a lesbian, I had stepped outside of “normal” life. I felt powerless a lot, maybe because my lifestyle and choices were not validated anywhere, but there was something about calling men “boys” that (subconsciously) made me feel in control. It was a way to take the power and authority from men and put me on the same level as them. It was playful and totally acceptable in the gay subculture. Even today, when I show up at a bar to meet my gay guy friends, the first words out of my mouth are “Hi boys!”
Okay—back to the kitchen. I have just called a Southern, adult black man a “boy.” It was the classic record-screeching-to-a-stop-dead-silence kind of scenario. I remember Prince had a big knife in his hand and was standing right in front of me. I gulped and looked around and for the first time, I realized that every single person in the room was black. I was the only white person in the kitchen.
I struggled for words, but what could I have said? Sorry I am such a dumbass and completely ignorant of the etymology of that word in Southern history? Sorry I forgot that the dynamic between a white woman and black man in the South is wrought with a terrible and violent history? Hey, Prince, it’s not a big deal—around gay people, it’s totally cool!
I wanted to disappear. He was mad, and he started going off on me—who did I think I was? Did I have any idea what I had just said? I think I was in shock; I didn’t say anything—or even move. I was angry with myself, but I also kind of wanted to defend myself. It was a stupid, thoughtless comment, and I certainly was not trying to insult him. I was being playful and had said something totally disgusting—I had screwed up.
It felt like Prince was trying to rally the troops and I sensed that everyone was equally offended by my comment. I knew of course that I wasn’t in any danger, but I also felt like I should probably leave and never come back. I got tears in my eyes as I listened to Prince’s reaction to what I had said.
Then, from nowhere—“Alright, that’s enough. She didn’t mean it that way and you know it, Prince. Leave her alone. She’s sorry.”
Suddenly, Ms. ’Lil was beside me. She put her arm around me and faced Prince. He immediately backed down—everyone, and I mean everyone, respected Ms. ’Lil. Prince stared at the two of us; I was holding my breath. Then, he sighed and told me to be careful in the future. I said I would, and apologized profusely. People started working again. I could hear knives on cutting boards—it was done. Ms. ’Lil give me a little hug.
“You’re one of us, Nat,” she told me, smiling like the amazing beacon she was. She squeezed my hand and went back to work.
I grabbed an onion and started dicing.
Prince and I were never close after that, but we respected each other and did our jobs. Ms. ’Lil really took me under her wing. When I left to go to graduate school, we both cried. She was just so amazing—I miss her still.
What did I learn?
I am not different from anyone else; it was a distinction that worked for me and made me feel better. But I cannot help where I am from, and as much as I would like to think that I don’t harbor stereotypes and judgments based on skin color, I do. We all do; we can’t change that. It is just much better to acknowledge it than to pretend like it isn’t there.
Race, like anything in life, is never black and white. I am not free from racism, nor is my family simply racist. I hated that day in the kitchen. It’s been ten years and I still cringe when I think about it, but it changed me—and I wouldn’t change that for anything.
Photo courtesy of CookingDiva