We can learn from our prejudices
Several months after writing a column about the uncomfortable encounters I have had since moving to Nevada County, I have yet to respond to all of the e-mails, phone calls and letters people have sent, because there were so many.
Some were surprised that people stared at me in grocery stores or were disturbed that people still used the term “Negro.” Others were saddened that I had to “justify my American-ness with the fact I was born in Ethiopia.”
But many more were heartened and asked how they could make my stay more pleasant. One Nevada County man even offered me a room in his home to spare me from the landlord who said the only thing worse than being white and ugly was being black and ugly.
I think I understand what people mean when they say it’s the quality of life that draws them to Nevada County. And I am not referring to the area’s natural beauty.
If I accepted every invitation, I probably wouldn’t have to drink coffee alone or dread another uneventful, boring weekend for the next year. So, for that, I am thankful.
But there was one comment that really hit home, and it came from a dear friend who lives in Ethiopia.
In an e-mail, Dawit wrote: “You can’t expect everyone to have the same views as you. How and where they grew up, their education and their experiences all make a difference on their way of thinking. I’m sure you had biases or first impressions of the same people you talked about … . Being ignorant doesn’t make people bad – Just stupid. And that’s not a sin.”
At first, I thought my friend had missed the point. After all, I wasn’t the one who said being black and ugly was the ultimate punishment. Why should I look at the problem from within when the problem was all around me?
So instead of giving it serious thought, I filed his comment in the back of my mind. Anyway, I had some unfinished business with Margie – the one who left me speechless when she said, “I knew you were a Negro, but you don’t look like a regular Negro.”
I invited Margie to dinner at Maria’s in Grass Valley, fully prepared to preach a rehearsed sermon of what not to say and how not to be offensive. I never imagined the tables would turn, and I would be the one receiving the lesson.
In the span of Margie’s 70-some years, her institutional mode of thinking has been disrupted time and again.
She was born and raised in the South at a time when lynching was a pastime and people indifferently used the six-letter N-word. She lived through the segregation of restaurants and schools only to witness firsthand the civil rights movement and subsequent desegregation. Now, in Nevada City she shares a home with me.
The woman I had dismissed as racist, too old and set in her ways to be affected by anything I had to say, reminded me that February was Black History Month (though there were no signs of it in Nevada County).
Before we left the Mexican restaurant, Margie made yet another shocking comment: “Have I told you how much I appreciate you?” she said.
Again, I was speechless.
I guess my friend in Ethiopia was right all along. If we look inside ourselves at our own biases and prejudices, we’ll likely find we all have a lot of learning to do.
Millete Birhanemaskel is The Union’s government reporter.
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