“White people can live anywhere.”

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We were driving to Missoula, MT when my beautiful Irish/Scottish husband said those words to me.

I had been oooh-ing and ahhhh-ing the scenery like a true New Yorker who wasn’t used to seeing all the mountains touching the true blue skies above them. “It’s so beautiful here!” I said, my heart palpitating faster as I fell in love with it all, mentally moving there.

“It is beautiful. But I could never live here” he said.

“Why? Too ‘small town’ for you?” I smirked.

“No, too many white people.” he responded.

I couldn’t help but burst out laughing.  I laughed so hard I held my stomach as I threw my head back in laughter.

“Um, but you’re white!” I laughed.

“Yeah, but you’re not…you know what I mean” he said very seriously. “White people can live anywhere.”

All of a sudden it wasn’t funny anymore.  I didn’t know what to say.  I got a little annoyed.

“I can live anywhere…I mean, I can…”, I struggled with my feelings and thoughts. “I don’t walk around marking boundaries because of what I look like!”

We arrived to Missoula, and had a great time.  Everyone was awesome.  Yes, I was asked the famous question a few times, but a lot of people I met had left after school had expanded their cultural boundaries enough to understand that there was so much more than what they grew up seeing.

As we were leaving, I looked at him and said, “I could live here! Not sure that I would want to, but I could.”

He didn’t respond.

Fast forward a few days and I am sitting on my comfy king size bed in our hotel room in Madison, WI when my phone rings.

It was someone I knew when I worked for as an interpreter for a school district there.

“I need your advice.  Remember when the ‘deer incident’ happened and you called the press?  I need to know how we can do that.”

And just like that I felt my heart start racing, my past come back to haunt me, mess up my world.  My “secret”, kept for more than a year, resurfacing.

Towards my last year in the small town I lived in WI, I started working as a Spanish/English interpreter for the school district that I fell in love with. My oldest was in school there.  I loved my job, I loved my boss.  But as time went by I realized that I didn’t love how detached the minority population was from the school community, and thus, the non-minority community as a whole.  Because of this, most minority kids, feeling excluded in so much, lacked ambition, goals, desire for their future.  It was clear that the non-minority children where “easier” to reach out to, “easier” to talk for the mostly White (except for a couple of) teachers.

So, I got together with the few people who wanted to get involved, and created the first minority student group in the district and raised funds, sought support, then took all the minority kids on college field trips, with one message in mind, “You too can do this!” “This too can be yours!” “Don’t let anyone deny you this future!

Kids loved it. A change was in the air. Minority student groups started to form.  I lead minority parent groups as well to talk about how to become more involved.

And then it happened.  One of the parents called me crying that a gang, who called themselves “The Hicks” were terrorizing minority students on and off school grounds.  A group of those kids put a dead dear on the hood of her family’s car and wrote racial epitaphs with the blood.  Her son, in high school and a member of my minority student group, confronted one of the gang members in school and was expelled.  The school’s Principal knew about it and was doing nothing.  She didn’t know what to do, no one was listening.

I have a background in Public Relations, and as a person who spent many years working with the press, it was no surprise that I immediately thought to contact them.

“I’ll call the press.  They’ll make them do something!”

That night I wrote a press release about the incident, about the failure to act on not only the Principal’s part, but also the Asst. Principal, who already had a bad reputation among the minority parent and student population, and the entire district itself. And I described what I knew.

And I knew a lot because I worked there and was very aware that everything was being handled badly. Not at all with the sense of urgency with which a Hate Crime would/should be handled.

By the next day the press was all over it.  Camera crews kept coming in and out of the then Superintendent’s office, a man who’s main concern was about who had leaked it to the press.  Did I mention I did this somewhat anonymously?

What I didn’t count on was how small towns function, and how people with pull all know each other, enough to get information, often private, from each other…either at their local pub, or the golf course, or during BBQs at their houses.

I was called into the office.

“We’ve been informed that you leaked this to the press.” the Superintendent’s right hand man informed me.

“Me? No…not sure where you got your information.”

“Well, the police are investigating this further and are considering this leak as an obstruction in the investigation. They have your name.”

“Wait. Are you telling me that the police could come to my house?”

“Yes.  You could be in a lot of trouble.”

Then I cried. I feared for my children. My home. My life.  But I denied it all the way. It didn’t help that I had a reporter of one of the largest stations, and friend of mine, call me warning me to “be careful”.

We moved out of WI to New York.  Not for this reason, but it helped to motivate us further.

As we left the small town we lived in, I didn’t see it with the same loving eyes as when we first got there.  It made me sick and angry. I knew I would never want to raise my children in a place like that, ever. I was disgusted by those who I learned more about during this experience and never wanted to see them again.

Now, listening to this former acquaintance talking to me about a new racist principal at the new middle school, how Black kids were being excluded from student activities, how crying parents would come in crying discrimination, how minority students were back to before I started the program…it all came back to me.  This same acquaintance, who turned her back on me when rumors of my being the leak spread, now wanted my guidance. “The gang is growing.  They now call themselves the Coon Killers and are carrying guns.  They engrave CK on their pellets and number them so they can later know what bullet hit what, or whom.”

“Why isn’t the press covering this?  Have they resolved the ‘deer incident’?” I asked, angry, scared again.

“No, no one is doing anything.  No one cares, and those who do aren’t powerful enough. That’s why I need you’re help. I can’t get involved personally, but I know community people who can, we just don’t know what to do, and it worked so well when you drew attention to it….”

Funny.  I haven’t lived in WI for over a year.  She didn’t know I was in town. When I drew attention to it no one, not even those who worked so close to me would call me, talk to me.  Everyone was afraid. Even my boss, who adored me, kept his distance. I never admitted to being the one who called attention to it through the press.  I denied it even when confronted by the High School Principal himself.  But I won’t deny it anymore, because I did nothing wrong.  It wasn’t until then that people began treating this incident as it should have been treated from the beginning: as a Hate Crime. Not kids just being unruly, acting up. I don’t care if they know.  I would do it over and over if I could.  My exposure to their denial and inability to deal with racist incidents in their schools and community took away the experience of home for me.  I will never forgive them for that.

I later talked to the mother of a former school mate of my 11 year old son.  I casually told her I had heard this and that, and asked her if she knew anything of it, since her son goes to school there.  She said no.  Never heard of such a thing.  She had heard “mixed-reviews” about the principal, but nothing too awful. She didn’t know, I realized, because she is White.

Later, I angrily paced back and forth at the playground while our kids played and I vented to my husband.

“It angers me! It’s not fair!  She can walk around in this dreamy state, aware only of her dreamy school, with their dreamy teachers, in their dreamy community because unlike minorities, their kids aren’t being threatened.  Gangs aren’t harassing them, Principals, teachers, those in power, aren’t ignoring their pleas, pretending nothing is happening, that everything is fine!”

“How?  How is it that this gang has grown,” I continued, “and only the parents of color, the students of color, are feeling their impact?”

I sat to catch my breath, I looked around at the beautiful lush park, the sparkling lake up ahead.  I could hear the birds singing, and children laughing in the background.

“I wish I could see this place how you see it,” I told my husband. “I wish I could see it as peaceful, and beautiful, as a dream place for families like ours. But I don’t, I sense fear for me and my children. I feel ignorance and intolerance. I am angry at the denial and inability and unwillingness to address the wrong to others like me.  I hate it.” And I started to cry.

My husband, sad and gently, held me in his arms and said, “Now you understand what I mean when I say that white people can live anywhere.”

As we vacationed there, visiting friends and family, driving past the same places that had made me fall in love with the neighborhood, I realized, with a sad, sad heart, that he was right.

UPDATE: Shortly after I published this post, I received a call from a former colleague at the school district stating that the HS principal wanted to speak with me. I rejected the call.

The victimized family of this horrible hate crime continues to be harassed and intimidated to this day. Also let it be known that I love WI and think it’s a wonderful place for families to visit. As visitor’s we have an awesome time there. I think it is a wonderful city, beautiful, and great.  But as it relates to race relations, they have a lot of work to do.

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Carol Cain

Carol is her happiest when on an adventure, either close to home or farther away. She's the mom to three fun boys and wife to a handsome Irish/Scot. She lives in New Jersey with her happy crew, but will always be a girl from Brooklyn. You can read her full profile here.

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17 Responses to “White people can live anywhere.”

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience and the history behind this recent trek back to the midwest.

    For those people who feel that we are living in a post-racial society your blog is such an eye openner into how institutionalized racism can be excused, rationalized and perpetuated by people blind to ways in which minority groups are ostracized and marginalized.

    Your story made me angry. You, were a heroine- a position you were forced into, unwittingly, by the frustration you felt. You, who did not have your head in the sand, knew that the only way to expose this hate crime (and that is what it was) was to leak it to the press. What I really dislike is the maddening passivity of others who should have risen and supported you. What temerity for that women to ask for your help after she was afraid of stepping forward and speaking out the truth.

    New York, Brooklyn, that is where you can be yourself. I have always seen you as this very cool and very urban blogger with a great sense of humor.

    You did the right thing. It sounds like you were the only one in that small town to take the right and only right moral and social action.

  2. JamiMiami says:

    Carol, I know it took a lot of courage to write this and thank you for doing it. I can totally identify with all the things that you say here. Amazing how far this country has come but it still has a long way to go. I've encountered more racism here in Miami than when I was living in Washington, DC. You'd be surprised, or maybe not, how racist some Latinos can be. I am also a dark-skin Latina and I guess I didn't realize how "dark-skin" I was until some people made me aware of it.

    Thanks again for writing this. I am glad you stood up for those kids and I'm sure they still remember you and your courage.

    J

  3. suzanne weidie says:

    NYCITYMOM,

    I totally understand what you are saying. I was raised in a small coastal town of Mississippi, middle-class, white, single-mom, not a lot of diversity. No interracial relationships of any sort. I moved to DC in 1990 (with my then white southern husband) and taught at an independent school on Capitol Hill. As a faculty requirement we had to read and discussa book about white privilege and thought, "What Me? I'm not privilege. We struggled to survive." but then I learned.

    I now have returned to my home town, after being gone for 18 years, with my bi-racial child. Things have changed here, more diverse. Your husband is right….too many white people. When i am traveling in places like that, i truly miss the diversity.

    Issues like the gang activity mentioned need to be brought to the forefront, no matter how uncomfortable the white folks might get.

    In the end, we are all enriched by people's willingness to stand up for what is right and for diversity.

    Enjoyed reading your posts!

    suzanne

    sew what studio

  4. Selfish Mom says:

    Good God. I don't know what to say. What's that saying about how bad things happen when good people stay silent? People know what's going on. If they're letting it happen under their noses they should be ashamed of themselves.

  5. Teri says:

    We're a biracial family too (originally from the Midwest). We just came home from visiting, and I'm thankful every single day that we are raising our children in an integrated Southern city and neighborhood. There is FAR more racism where my husband and I grew up than I have ever seen here. Just going back to where he and I are from after several years confirmed to me why I'm raising my kids HERE. My husband and I had almost the same conversation you and your husband did. I said almost the exact same thing about "too many white people." (I'm white) My husband reacted just like you did. Anyway, great post.

  6. MJ says:

    Hi there, let me be the first to tell you how UNTRUE this is…

    See, Honey Bear (who is Irish and Dominican, but looks total mafioso), he is a born and raised bronx boy..me, on the other hand, came from the midwest…blonde, white…you know how it goes. Anyway…we have lived all over NY and the worst part was when we lived in the bronx. I was one of the few (no kidding!!) white women there…it was a nice enough apartment, neighborhood had what we needed, but I couldnt go for a walk to the store or ANYPLACE, not out of fear mind you, but african american women came up to me ALL the time, hassling me – I had to wait for Honey Bear to come with me and was basically hostage at home until he was home…not good!

    And also, we too go to Missoula ALL THE TIME…seriously, at least every other week, nice town, I too ooohed and ahhhed…but, it is a HUGE meth area, yep..that cutesy little town, bad, bad, bad…

    Anyway…the bottom line here is this, yes..there ARE areas for ALL races to run into problems, it is NOT just a minority thing…I have been on that other foot and its not a nice place to be…please, keep this in mind, never say never because never holds 100% truth.

  7. Carol says:

    MJ: Thanks for your comment, I'm sorry that you went through that, that is very unfortunate and emphasizes that we have a lot of work ahead of us.

    I hope you can understand that in sharing my experiences I am in no way suggesting that no other grp, including my husband's, don't suffer injustices as well.

    Obviously, this is my personal story, so it will have my perspective, and I am not sure that I stated it was ONLY a minority thing…but in this story, my story…it was and is.

    As for Missoula..can't relate, because my time there was absolutely lovely and I will hold on to the happy memory for as long as I can : )

  8. Carol says:

    Thanks everyone for your support and for reading. I'm glad to have gotten to a place where I can finally share my story…

  9. Elisa says:

    It is SO horrible that in this day and age there are still those who feel superior to others because of their ethnicity or the color of their skin, and that they feel entitled to bully and threaten and just make life hard for other people.

    It saddens me but it also makes me mad. Who do their think they are?

  10. Glad that you shared that story, Carol, as horrible as it was. I have to agree with Elisa's comment.

  11. Miguelina says:

    Keep on doing the right thing. I understand your story from so many angles. After living in Miami, I can only laugh when people call me a minority.

  12. Houseonahill.org says:

    For years I've been optimistic that things will change. Something in this piece has doused that, I really think that we will not live to see the utopia we all so long for and deserve.

    I recently had "the" talk with my newly teenaged son. He lost all his baby fat this summer so now he "fits the profile" and I am scared to death. Sad to say, I know he is a colored man in America who can't carry his good grades and excellence on his forehead. I hate this so much! But thank you for sharing, I still must hold onto my belief that more discussion will lead to progress.

    BUT if shaming rascists doesn't work…laws don't work, having a colored President does not work, the spilling of our blood doesn't work, what will???

  13. MJ Tam says:

    Wow…saw another MJ commented up there. You have another MJ fan? hihi

    Anyway, I really thank you for sharing your story. I still can't get my mind off it.

  14. magpie says:

    I thought I commented, but it didn't take. Oh well.

    Thanks for posting this – good food for thought, and a reminder to be vigilant about accepting people.

  15. lartiste says:

    yes it is true white people can live anywhere in not only America but in the world. I would love to go to Asia or parts of Europe but I know (based on reading about traveling and hearing stories), I won't be welcomed and can in fact be put in a dangerous position whereas white people can go and be respected…and it is very sad and depressing.

  16. Li says:

    This is such a powerful post, and I just want to commend you for taking action, when others were restrained by fear. It's not easy to do what you did then, and what you are doing now, exposing the truth.

    I know a little about living in a small town, being Puerto Rican, and being blatantly categorized… I know a little about living in Brooklyn, and being "quietly" categorized. I know a little about the famous question. And I know when I taught a room full of "minorities," there wasn't a moment that didn't go by that I didn't say to them, "You can be ANYTHING you want to be." They knew I was from their 'hood, a lawyer and their teacher, so if "I did it, so could [they]." I know a little about that feeling of wanting to make an impact.

    The actions you took to open doors for them, shed light on injustice, were HEROIC to say the least. I've been sitting on that fence with you, straddling the world as we know it and the world as we wish it could be. I hope that one day more doors will be opened, more light will be shed, and more work will be done by people like you to take down the fence that divides.

    Best,

    Li

    @LaLicenciada

    @HerDeepThoughts

  17. ScrappinMichele says:

    I do realize that we have a long way to go, but I do believe that we are making some strides. I look at my own children. We live in a community outside of DC where the number of minorities is higher than the whites in our schools and on my street. There is no real majority here. When my kids describe a classmate, they never say, he/she is black, white, purple, etc…they say things like. He wears glasses, she has black hair, she's taller than me. I know it's a small thing, but they don't see the minorities as being that "different" because it's so common here.

    I'm not naive enough to think that we don't still have racism here..even in my own community and schools, but I do think that it's the "unknown" that causes the problems. If you don't know any blacks or latinos, then you only have the stereotypes we see and hear about to go on. Yes, it's an assumption, but if you have no experience, we draw from other places.

    But then we do the same thing to kids. If we see a bunch of kids in a group at the mall, we immediately assume they will act a certain way. Guilty until proven innocent. It's in our nature to assume things based on either past experience or our assumptions.

    I don't know what the answer is, but I do know that continuing the discussion in an open, honest and positive way is good. We all have to be willing to listen, even to the haters… because listening to the haters helps you to understand why they hate. You can't change someone's mind unless you listen first and ask questions. Understand before you can be understood.
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