Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Prejudice Comes in All Colors

How I realized I was perpetuating a racial stereotype

“This must have been written by some illiterate Italian who can’t speak English.” The remark slid off the white preacher’s tongue as he read the announcements from the church bulletin. He chuckled about the typos he was encountering, but he did not smile.

I gasped, then elbowed my husband. “Did you hear that? He just made a racist joke.”

Ben’s words came slowly. “I know … yeah …” He seemed alarmed, but not as mad as I was.

We had visited the church on a whim the previous Sunday, having just moved into a house down the street. We returned, because Ben liked the music. I was wary, since I was the only black person in the sanctuary.

The preacher’s insult outraged me. I took it personally. If he joked like that about Italians, God knows what he’d say about me.

I inventoried the possibilities.

  • In my twenties, hard at work as the front desk clerk of a resort hotel: A guest sneered that my kind were only fit to clean rooms.
  • In my thirties, driving my mother to the store: A pedestrian screamed a racial epithet at me and added an obscene gesture.
  • In my forties, paused at a stoplight in the suburbs: The driver of a pick-up pulled up in the next lane, rolled down his window, and spat the N word.

The preacher said “illiterate Italian,” but I heard a lifetime of nigger.

It scared me, too. If I wasn’t safe in church, I wasn’t safe anywhere. I wanted to give the minister the benefit of the doubt. I wanted the other parishioners to validate my fury, to stand up en masse and demand an apology. But people sitting nearby made no sounds or gestures I could interpret as protest. Maybe the congregation agreed with the slur. Maybe they wanted me out of their church. Maybe they hated me. It was no longer Kansas City, 2003. It was Montgomery, 1961.

I was desperate to leave but couldn’t move. Wanted to disappear, but could only stare into the distance. Just as I had at sixteen, when my white stepmother had taken me to see Gone with the Wind. I’d hated Mammy’s black face, shining like polished leather under that stupid bandana. Hated Prissy’s simpering uselessness, hated her for being exactly what Rhett Butler called her. A “simple-minded darkie.” After the matinee, my stepmom and I had edged through a lobby full of movie-goers who looked like her — fair skin, straight hair, thin lips. I was Prissy.

The preacher moved on to his sermon, but the pounding in my chest drowned out the message. In my head, I composed a sermon of my own, peppered with how-dare-yous and shame-on-yous and a fusillade of you-don’t-knows.

Stripped of the option to fight, run, or vanish, I struggled to find calm within a torrent of passions. As Ben held my hand, my rage collapsed under its own weight, exposing a grief that rendered me as useless as Prissy.

After the service, I said, “I’m going down to meet the minister.”

Ben chuckled. “Right. I’ll bet you are.”

He was wrong if he suspected an argument between his wife and the unsuspecting preacher. My expression might have signaled confidence, but I was trembling. Words were too limiting to encapsulate the complicated feelings that lay beneath my initial indignation.

The pastor stood at the front of the church, greeting parishioners. I trudged down the aisle toward him. He smiled when we shook hands.

I pushed my dreadlocks off my face and took a deep breath. “We … my husband and I … visited last Sunday … and today. We felt welcome … until that joke about Italians. I don’t feel welcome anymore.”

His smile dissolved.

“Oh. Let me explain. We’re doing a pizza fundraiser with an Italian restaurant and — ”

“I’m not here to accuse you of anything. Or make assumptions about your motives.” Maybe there was still a way to let him off the hook, to end this awkward exchange. Usually the one who shrank away from conflict, this time — surprising myself as well as the preacher — I stood firm. “That remark … it made me think … when will it be my turn? When will you all make fun of me?”

“That won’t ever happen. When you get to know me better, you’ll understand.”

He touted his accomplishments in the area of diversity. He listed the church’s contributions to civic committees, initiatives on behalf of immigrants, and programs for inner city youth. It sounded like he was giving a presentation to the Chamber of Commerce.

I waited for him to finish. “I’m new to your church. Didn’t know you when you made the joke.”

Neither of us budged. And then he let out a long breath. “I apologize. It wasn’t very smart. Thank you for your courage … and honesty.” He draped his arm across my shoulders, uninvited. “I hope you and your husband will come back.”

I cringed, took a step backward, then turned away to search for Ben.

We walked to the car in silence. He eased it out of the parking lot into the street. “Awfully quiet. You okay?”

“No.”

“What happened?”

“Well, he’s not a bad guy. But good people are worse.”

“Meaning?”

“They’re so sure about not being prejudiced. They don’t listen. They just brag about — ”

“What?”

I smacked the dashboard. “No. I don’t believe it.”

Months earlier, at my nephew’s football game, I’d crossed an urban high school campus in search of other team parents. I felt out of place, I was probably the only black person there who’d be rooting for the suburban Catholic school my nephew attended. Three African-American teenagers sauntered toward me, dressed in baggy pants and shirts that hung to their knees. Shoulder punching emphasized the boys’ banter, laced with an occasional “Dude” and “Bro.” Their joking grew louder as they approached.

I stopped them when they got close. “Is the football field in this direction?”

“Yes, ma’am. If you continue down the walkway, you’ll find it directly on your left,” one of them said.

And then all three in unison. “Have a nice day.”

Their response had caught me off guard, but I didn’t know why. I’d dismissed it and hurried off, intent on my destination. The unnamed irritant stopped me mid-stride. I turned around. The young men had continued on their way, their voices fading into the autumn breeze.

As they’d vanished around a corner, the truth about my discomfort had hit me.

I’d expected those black teenagers to talk like gangster rappers, but they’d addressed me in tones as courtly as those of British noblemen.

By the time I finished telling Ben my story, we’d arrived home and pulled into our garage. I glanced over at him, sheepish, then quickly looked away. Maybe we’d come to the same conclusion about me. If he said it first, it would spare me from admitting it out loud. Instead, he reached across the console and patted my knee. Sitting in the car, surrounded by everything familiar and safe, I was undone. Hoping to escape the moment, I gazed out my window. My reflection stared back, as my thoughts returned to the church.

When I’d faced that white preacher, I was looking in a mirror.

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