Does racism still exist? Of course, it does, and anyone who tells you the opposite is lying or grossly mistaken about the systemic foundational oppression in this country and how that oppression is still infiltrating modern sensibilities and institutions. Is racism an insurmountable obstacle in modern society? In certain contexts it is, but in others, we make problems where they really don’t exist. We’ve been discussing cultural competency and racial equity in my leadership class, and all I could think about for a few moments was the following true story from my college days.
It was hot. Too hot to be out and about, but I had promised Jill that I would go to her hometown with her for the day. She only lived a short distance from our college campus, and her invite made me feel welcomed when I most missed home. I hadn’t made that many friends yet, so I was grateful to have a place to go when everyone else was road-tripping for parties or shopping. Plus, I had never been to a rural community, and I was curious and wanted to see what that was like. We drove around town “site” seeing and visited her friend who took over his dad’s pig farm when he’d graduated from high school. He explained to me that he’d make much more money doing that than going to college himself. And after he insisted that I “get on in there and see the balls on those pigs,” we headed off to Kayla’s house to pick her up to go back to the dorms.
From the highway, corn farms seemed quite expansive, and I can honestly say that driving through one just before the sun started to set was scary. The corn was really tall, taller than the car, and because my only experience with corn farms were the Children of the Corn horror movies, I was wondering what strange kid named Malakai was going to pop out with some terribly devilish enterprise, requiring my blood and guts. I kept looking around nervously, which Jill found hilarious, as she confessed to getting lost several times before, trying to find Kayla’s house.
When we finally made it through the maze of corn and could see the house in the distance, Jill told me about Kayla’s little brother, and how much he liked her. He was about seven years old and had a puppy love crush on his sister’s best friend. We talked about little kids, babysitting, and other things that unified our pre-college experience before we pulled into Kayla’s driveway. Jill made a quick “beep, beep” with the horn, and a short time later, Kayla’s brother came running full speed toward the car. His mom was following closely behind him beckoning for Jill to get out of the car. When Kayla’s brother saw me, which he hadn’t at first, he literally stopped dead in his tracks. Kayla’s mom was a little taken aback; obviously her daughter hadn’t told her family that I was black, but she tried to appear as if having a black girl in the middle of her corn field was a normal occurrence.
“I’m Marilyn,” I said as I extended my hand out to hers, trying to reassure her that I was safe. Without hesitation, she took my hand in hers, and led me into her house, explaining that Kayla wasn’t ready yet, but that she could make us a cool drink while we waited. Honestly, this shocked me. Based on her initial reaction, and the fact that her son had obviously never seen a black person up close before, I wasn’t expecting that hospitality.
Kayla was nowhere near being ready, so her little brother took that opportunity to fill Jill in on all that had taken place in his young life since the last time they saw each other. All of a sudden, his eyes lit up. He’d forgotten something very important. He’d gotten a new goat! Now, other than at a petting zoo, I had never seen a goat up close, and I surely had never known of people keeping them as pets, so when I said, “a goat!” all shocked and too loud for the occasion, he was in disbelief.
“Nobody has goats in Chicago?” he questioned.
“Well, I don’t know about everybody in Chicago, but I have never known of anybody in Chicago having a goat.”
“You gotta see him. Come on.”
“No, thank you. That’s okay.” Up until that moment, I didn’t realize that I was afraid of goats.
“Leave it outside,” his mom warned. Something was making her seem all weird, though. “You know what?” she said, “She doesn’t want to see it. Leave her alone.”
“Come on,” he said, pulling my hand and ignoring his mom.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’ll go, but I don’t want to touch it, okay?” He reminded me of my little cousin, and I wanted him to show me if he was so excited about it. “Does it bite?”
“Yeah,” he said and tugged me out to the back of the house as his mom and Jill followed closely behind. My heart was sitting in my throat as I waited for him to bring his new goat to meet me. The other goats (yes, there was more than one) were walking freely about the backyard. A chewing black goat allowed itself to be led by the little boy, and way too close for my comfort, he stood it next to me.
“You should pet him.”
“Uh-uh, I’m okay.”
“His name is ‘Blackie.'”
His mom gasped audibly, and her eyes got very wide. “No,” she practically screamed. “We’re not keeping that name! I told you that!” Her hands were placed over her chest like a nearly buried relative.
“But, MOM!” he shouted, “his name is ‘Blackie!’ You said it was my goat! That’s his name! You said I could name him whatever I wanted. It’s my goat. Blackie, Mom, his name is ‘Blackie!'” She was absolutely mortified as her son screamed “Blackie” repeatedly through hot tears of confusion and anger.
Now, I could say that this scene offended me. I could say that I sulked away, feeling ostracized and even more different than I already did, but the truth is that I burst into a violent fit of laughter. I laughed so hard that not only was I coughing from being largely unable to catch my breath, but I also had tears streaming down my cheeks. The reality was that this was a coal-black goat, so “Blackie” made all the sense in the world to a seven-year old. And the name probably was perfectly okay even to the adults in the house until I pulled up in the car with Jill.
Kayla’s mom turned a bright red when she realized that she had made the goat’s name have much too much significance, and she walked up to me laughing and gave me a big, familiar hug. We had both harbored tension, bias, and prejudice that was so unwarranted. And yes, there are some real cultural differences that impacted our feelings, associations, and actions, but ultimately, this was not racism. It was a black goat named “Blackie.” That’s it, and once she realized that, and I realized that a kid wanting a goat is not that different from another kid wanting a dog, we were able to relax and get to know each other without all the stiff body language and forced niceties. We were just nice because we were nice people.
We ended up staying longer than anticipated, having a snack before heading back to campus, and although I have never seen Kayla’s mom or brother ever again, I’m so glad to have met them. That experience hasn’t erased all of my own deep-rooted biases and prejudices, but it has made me more conscious of them, making me question their significance and validity in my own associations. If everyone took the time to acknowledge their own issues, maybe we would be one step closer to rooting out the real racist behaviors and systems in American society. None of us are perfect. We all have some type of bias or prejudice lying below the surface, especially if we are natives to this country, but that doesn’t make us racist. We should, though, try to acknowledge those things consciously, forcing ourselves to deal with tough issues so that we can truly gain that equity that is so needed for real improvement. That’s my opinion, at least.