The Quad-Cities Big Table, an initiative of the Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce, was meant to bring people together to have conversations about how we can make life in our community even better. I hosted a table of eleven at the Martin Luther King Center in Rock Island and wanted to have a discussion about poverty and mentoring as lifting up “at-risk” children is one of my passions. I have always focused on economic inequality; I really haven’t addressed race. Thanks to ten new friends, that changed last Saturday.
I heard some hard truths around that conference table. I heard a wise and wonderful woman recount her experience of seeking dental treatment in the early 1960s in New Orleans and having to enter a door in a back alley before waiting in the “colored” waiting room to see a dentist. I heard of a system that sets smart millennial people of color up for failure as they were not accepted by their classmates in the accelerated academic programs into which they were placed. These students felt compelled to “dumb themselves down” so they would fail and be re-slotted into curriculums with kids who looked more like them. Their teacher failed to identify that there was a problem. I heard stories of a young man of color being followed by security guards at the mall when he happened to get separated from his white girlfriend when she went to try on a new pair of jeans.
For the last 20 years, I’ve volunteered in “at-risk” schools in Peoria, Rock Island and Davenport. I’ve visited these neighborhoods twice a week to share my time, talent and treasure. I’ve celebrated successes with my young mentees, but wasn’t around for the everyday indignities with which they are burdened. One of my table-mates on Saturday told me that she is often asked, “What are you?” as a reference to her ethnicity. I can’t even imagine. I close my eyes and try to put myself into her place and feel the anger bubble up and imagine myself saying, “What am I?! I’m a person just like you!” Her reality, though, is that wouldn’t be an acceptable answer.
I hope that someday my son and my gorgeous daughter-in-law will bless me with grandchildren. If they do, they will undoubtedly be the most beautiful brown children the world has ever seen. Will they feel compelled to “dumb down” the minds they inherited from their talented mother who works for an options trading firm and their father who builds mathematical valuation models? Will they receive long stares from some law enforcement officers? Will insensitive people ask them, “What are you?”
I was ignorant; I own it. I am an educated white woman who has been unduly blessed. I will never know what it is like to be judged by others because of the color of my skin. I want to listen and learn, though. I want to be part of the solution. Won’t you join me in keeping this conversation alive?