Lately I've been thinking a lot about intolerance. It seems like every time I read the news, there's some new horrible story where the basic problem is that there are a lot of people who can't accept that people are different and that's okay. They have to hate people of a different color, a different religion, a different gender, a different sexuality. It makes no sense to me at all, and I've really been thinking a lot about what in the hell this world is coming to if people can't just decide that getting along is more important than everyone being just the same.
So this has had me thinking about the very first time that I remember talking to a racist. I'm sure I'd heard something before, but this was the very first time that the comment was addressed to me. I'll try to paint the scene as best I can. Enjoy!
I was thirteen or fourteen years old, and helping a photographer friend of the family at a school dance. I LOVED this job. LOVED IT. I loved seeing all the girls in fancy dresses, I loved seeing the boys all dressed up and trying to act like it was no big deal that they had on a suit and tie, I loved watching the teachers as chaperones, treating the kids they saw each day like almost grown-ups. It was just fun. It seemed like a safe look into a world that I had an outside chance of joining, and like a way I could learn the ropes so that I wouldn't feel so awkward if I ever got the chance to go. So you know, super fun!
This dance was for a local public high school, and it was held at a place just around the corner from my house. We got there before the kids started arriving, to set up the back drop, the lighting, and the table where I would show the attendees what picture packages they could choose from and collect their money. I was allowed to get myself a bottle of water, as well as some punch and cookies to munch on, and while I was getting my snacks and admiring the dance floor and it's pretty lights and festive paper decorations, the first kids arrived. I hurried back to my station, ready to be helpful and play my own tiny role in each couple's glamorous evening.
Within minutes, the first couple came down the stairs to make their picture decisions. I remember how polite they were to me and to the photographer. They debated for at least 15 minutes over which package to get, and snippets of their conversation floated back to me. He kept telling her that whatever she wanted he was happy to pay for, he'd saved his money so they could have a perfect date. She kept saying that she wanted them to pick together, and kept thanking him for making everything so great so far. She reached up and straightened his tie, smoothed his lapels; he kept telling her that she looked so beautiful, the most beautiful girl in the whole world. They were both glowing at each other, and were wrapped in a sweet bubble of first love. I was enchanted. He was so much taller than her, but every move he made was so gentle and caring. Every time she looked at him, she stood a little straighter and radiated a little brighter. They shared a few sweet and tender kisses, and we all blushed a little knowing I'd been witness to such a private moment. They picked the biggest package they could get, then went over to be the first of the evening to have their pictures taken. As far as I was concerned, I was absolutely thrilled for them, and felt that first real hope that some day, I could be that girl. They smiled brilliantly for their pictures, then stepped aside to watch some friends start the same process, giving each other another sweet kiss to celebrate their evening.
Just then, one of the woman who ran the place where the dance was being held sidled up behind me. She leaned down and whispered, "Oh will you look at that", nodding in their direction. I looked obediently, since a grown up was telling me to do something. The couple was waiting for their friends to finish their pictures, standing with the young man's arms wrapped around her waist from behind. He leaned down and kissed her cheek, and she responded by turning around and kissing him back. At that moment, the woman whispered directly into my ear "Oh my. Those lips. Can you imagine? That lovely girl is kissing his disgusting black lips. Those black hands pawing at her. Just awful."
I felt cold. I felt sick. I had no idea that anything gross or bad was happening, and in fact, I was pretty sure that everything I had witnessed was both lovely and good. I turned in my seat to look at this woman, who gave me a knowing look, and then walked away. She had thrown her horrible dart at me and left, leaving me disgusted and confused. Should I tell someone that she had said that? Was I complicit in her hate just for hearing it? I wasn't sure what my role was in this age-old drama.
I wish I could say that I stood up and followed her and told her what a racist piece of shit she was. I wish I could say that I found a way to shame her for her ugly views, or that I got her to realize how appalling her views were. I didn't. I was only a kid, and I hadn't yet learned that when somebody throws hate your way, you find a way to fight back for goodness. I just knew that for years, I felt a sick pang in my stomach whenever I drove by that place, and wondered how many other kids she whispered her hatred to.
There it is. My first encounter with a racist. However much I wish I could have had the sense to push back right there, I do think that she sent me down the road to knowing that when evil presents itself to you, you have to push back. But I still do wish I had the chance to talk to her now. Because believe you me, my reaction would be much, much stronger, and I wouldn't live my life regretting the chance to shock a racist with logic, open mindedness, and some good old fashioned curse words. I mean, you wouldn't expect anything less of me, right?