Persistently, I try to take photographs in my garden that capture the joy of standing in its presence. No matter how much I work at it, no matter which camera settings or angles I experiment with, a two-dimensional picture is never going to make viewers see it the way I see it.
I think that’s what it must be like for people of color. They desperately want the white majority to see the world from their perspective. To be honest, I’m not sure that’s entirely possible, but it shouldn’t stop me – or anyone else – from getting as close as humanly possible to a 3D view.
My first real experience with racism was in 1966 at the tender age of 12. Tony Bellson and his sister, the adopted children of legendary singer Pearl Bailey, were the only Black kids in my Southern California elementary school. One day Tony asked me to go steady. I didn’t answer right away because I liked another boy, and Tony seemed to have a chip on his shoulder that I didn’t understand at the time. I asked a girlfriend what she thought I should do.
“He asked me, too,” she said. “I told him no.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because he’s the wrong color,” she answered as though it should have been obvious.
Writing this now, I’m still in that moment – sitting in a sixth-grade size chair, at a sixth-grade size table, looking up at the trusted friend standing next to me, trying to get my head around what was just said. Wrong color? Wrong color? What’s wrong about a color?
My next conversation with Tony was to say yes. It wasn’t because I liked him the way a little girl should like the boy she holds hands with on the playground. It was to prove to everybody who saw us together that there was no such thing as a wrong color.
Flash forward 13 years and suddenly I was a 25-year-old idealist looking for my first job in journalism. I applied at a small newspaper that served Portland, Oregon’s Black community. For whatever reason, the couple who owned the business decided to take a chance on me. I was over the moon to get my first writing job, and even more over the moon because it was an opportunity to do something I thought was important – help give a voice to people who weren’t heard nearly enough.
I was so excited, and naïve, that I didn’t anticipate how difficult it would be. It wasn’t the writing that was hard. It was being accepted by the people I was there to write about. Simply put, I was the wrong color.
For once, I was the one who was suspect. For once, I was the only white person in a meeting room or an auditorium full of Black people. For once, I had to listen. Really listen.
Eventually, I earned the trust of our readers by producing high-quality work that shed light on issues I never would have fully understood without the perspective that particular job gave me. I talked to people directly involved in and affected by school desegregation, employment discrimination, suppression of human rights in prison, systemic poverty, the brittle relationship between the Portland Police and the Black community, the fallout of the Indochina refugee crisis, and so much more. I got to know men who walked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the streets of hostile southern states. I interviewed one of Dr. King’s daughters. I went to a National Urban League convention in Los Angeles and met national civil rights leaders like Vernon Jordan and Andrew Young. It was a heady time.
Four years after I was hired, and not long before I left to take a promotion at another newspaper, I invited my mother to a large community event sponsored by my employer. I’ll never forget a conversation I overheard between her and Charles Jordan, the first Black commissioner elected to the Portland City Council. He was unusually tall with rich, toffee skin. She was rather short with a milky complexion. He looked down at her, smiled broadly when she said she was my mom, and paid me the best professional compliment I’ve ever received.
“Laurie’s tough, but she’s fair,” he said.
He didn’t say, “She’s white, but she’s fair.” It was a color-blind statement. I was no longer the wrong color to be working on a Black newspaper. I was just me.
I’m pretty sure that most Black people who read this will nod their heads and think, “Welcome to my world,” because that’s what their entire lives are like – always trying to prove that they are more than the color of their skin. Nevertheless, I’m convinced my story of a young, white reporter living for a while in a Black world is worth telling at this critical point in American history. Speaking up is not an option for me. It’s an obligation … no, it’s a privilege.
You may not have the opportunity to walk down someone else’s path like I did. But you can take a lesson from my garden where nearly every bush produces a different hue. Among the roses, there is no wrong color. Just different colors. Each one is beautiful individually, but when growing harmoniously in one garden … well … they’re nothing short of breathtaking.