Several months ago I attended the “State of the Black World Conference” in Atlanta Georgia. Among those present were black activists, politicians, scholars and clergy from around the globe. Even celebrities such as Tavis Smiley, Danny Glover and Chris Tucker made an appearance in order to raise the awareness of this important discussion.
Although I learned a great deal at the conference, I didn’t actually need to leave Nashville to be reminded that for people of a darker hue, the state of the black world hasn’t really changed in many ways.
During the many speeches at the conference I was reminded of an experience just days earlier. While searching for real estate in Nashville, I encountered a pleasant and accommodating middle-aged women who showed me some property in the Belmont area. Although I wasn’t interested in the place, she seemed eager to help me locate something more suited to my taste. She assured me that her partner managed many properties and felt confident he would have something available in the near future. She promised to have him call me as soon as possible.
Before we parted I inquired as to the location of another apartment that interested me. Leaning in close and confidential she advised me to be careful because although the area in which I was looking was close by, it was still “coming around”. As my mind and heart raced, I tried to appear as though I didn’t know what “coming around” meant.
Normally among whites this coded language is clearly understood with no explanation necessary. But I wanted to hear her say it. And she did. In a sweet maternal tone she warned me of the dangers of the neighborhood because there were still a lot of “blacks” living in the area. And she did what white people often do. She whispered the word “black” as if to protect a coveted secret.
But why whisper? Was she afraid someone would hear her who wasn’t white? Was it because black people don’t know they are black? Or was it to soften her insinuation that blacks are undesirable to live with? The only certainty is that she must have felt confident that I would understand and appreciate her warning.
The next words that came out of my mouth were unplanned and untrue. I calmly replied that the particular neighborhood she alluded to would actually work out very well for me because “I am black”. And then without flinching I maintained a steady gaze and awaited a response.
She appeared nervous and confused as the flood of caveats and explanations flowed for several minutes. She clarified that what she meant to say was that the neighborhood was changing because more full time residents were moving in and renters were moving out.
She also seemed to struggle with the data I had just given her regarding my race. Did she somehow miss any signs that would have revealed my blackness? How did she not know? Although my hair is coarse and curly my skin is rather fair. She was understandably confused.
I’m not sure why I told her I was black rather than just confronting her about the damage of such a blatantly racist statement. Maybe I figured a little white lie would have more of an impact. And that by telling her I was black she might be forced to wrestle with her conscience. She had exposed her true feelings–which she was clearly uncomfortable sharing with an unsympathetic stranger. What I most hoped is that she would reevaluate the ignorance of her words and understand the devastation inflicted upon every black person when one of us white folks perpetuates the mythology of blacks as being dangerous.
For many of the attendees at the conference, this incident sums up the state of the black world. As Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, the prominent black psychologist suggests, the best thing whites can do for non-whites is to tell them what we (whites) say when they aren’t around. This way we all know where we stand.
A few minutes later my cell phone rang and it was the real estate woman calling to let me know that she had already spoken to her partner. As it turns out, he had no available apartments and nothing coming up in the near future. I thanked her for letting me know where I stood.
Molly Secours is a writer, activist and videographer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org