The Black Lives Matter movement has led me to reflect on my own struggle with racism. It might seem weird that a member of an ethnic group that has been persecuted for thousands of years could be a racist, but that just proves there’s nothing rational about it. It became embedded in my psyche early in life, fueled by systemic racism and the influence the people around me. Isolation in a bubble of de facto segregation provided little motivation to question it.
During my teens I was sympathetic to the sit-ins and the freedom marches and thrilled by Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, but my support for equality was more a matter of principle than practice. If not for having been thrown into a situation that forced me to confront an ingrained bigotry, I might never have shaken it
Graduation from high school in January left me with eight months on my hands before college. Much of that time was spent working as janitor and kitchen help in my father’s catering business. For one dollar an hour, I cleaned floor to ceiling mirrors, shampooed carpets, polished wood floors and made rest rooms sparkle. Weekends, I labored 14 hour days in a steamy kitchen alongside the African Americans and Hispanics who made up most of the kitchen and waitstaff. It didn’t take long for me to learn these were good, hard working, well mannered men and women. My dad treated them fairly and with respect. They reciprocated with loyalty and dedication. Dad made it clear from the get go that, when I walked into the kitchen, I could forget I was the boss’ son. His employees, regardless of complexion, were my superiors. I would take orders from them and work as hard as they did.
Willie, the Black head chef, though not lacking in warmth and humor, went about his business with military precision. Despite the sometimes frenetic pace, there was never any rancor in the kitchen. We all focused on the task of turning out superb meals on schedule for up to a couple thousand guests per weekend.
Being the lowest of the low, forbidden to approach the stoves and ovens, I was tasked with washing vegetables putting together hundreds of salad plates, filling hollowed out pineapple halves with fruit salad, arranging condiment dishes and bread baskets, helping to prepare and plate deserts and the like. My creations filled huge trays stacked six feet high on dollies that would wait in the huge walk-in refrigerator. Between food related tasks I scrubbed mountains of metal trays, mixing bowls and pots and pans, cleaned countertops, wiped up spills from floors, put out bottles and trash, hauled in supplies from the storage area and delivery trucks, or performed whatever other unskilled tasks I was directed to do.
My world had flipped topsy-turvy. In that kitchen I was the minority. Uppity behavior would not go over well with the others and, certainly, not with the boss. Having had this experience, I find it especially galling when someone tells me the reason people are poor is that they’re lazy. I’d like to see them take just one day off from their desk jobs or from riding around a golf course, occasionally swinging at a ball, and try doing what these people do for a lifetime — at minimum wage.
During my college years I left that world behind, holding cushy jobs running aquatics programs at summer camps and lifeguarding at swim clubs. What I did not leave behind was the awareness gained while working alongside the people in that kitchen. I was no better than they, only more fortunate.
I was off at college when Willie’s mother died. Mom and Dad attended the church service. Two white faces in a sea of black ones, they were warmly welcomed by Willie’s family and friends. They later told me how they were blown away by the service. The place rocked and rolled with a joyful sound unto the Lord as the Dear Departed was sent off to her eternal reward. I regret to this day not having been there.
It would be nice to say working in that kitchen completely eradicated my prejudice. It did set me in the right direction, but shaking it took decades more of conscious effort. Ironically, my daughter played the biggest role in the process. Somehow, we raised her to grow up devoid of bigotry. In turn, she taught by example. Still, only now, after having relocated to a highly diverse community, am I truly comfortable with different kinds of people. Finally, appreciative of all types of beauty, I can see through superficial differences to a common bond of humanity.
Shaking off racism is no easy thing, but it feels great. Ardently, I wish the same for everyone.