The raw, uncomfortable truth about racism from a black woman who's experienced it

The raw, uncomfortable truth about racism from  a black woman who's  experienced it

Truth. That’s what we’re talking about today.

I figure, if we want race relations to improve, we better start listening to each other. That’s why I asked Cheryl Lewis, a 66-year-old black wife and mother from Calumet Heights, to talk about racism from her own personal perspective.

Although Cheryl retired seven years ago, she had worked steadily since she was 15. For 24 years, she worked at Mr. G’s supermarket, my family’s now defunct business. Later, she worked as a teacher’s aide and a hearing and vision screener for the Chicago Public Schools.

Thanks in part to Facebook, Cheryl and I have stayed in touch. We had not talked about racism previously, at least not to this extent. Here’s my interview with her.

What would you like white people to know about being black in America?

Cheryl: That it’s not easy–in terms of jobs, where you can live, the way police treat black folk, it isn’t a level playing field. And you always have to think ahead–like when you’re driving through certain predominantly white areas like Mount Greenwood or Oak Lawn. You have to remember to slow down. The police will pull you over for nothing.

I assume you have personally experienced racism. Can you tell me about some of those times?

Cheryl: Yes, there have been many times.

Years ago, my dad, who could pass for white, wanted to rent an apartment in Hyde Park at 53rd and Kimbark. He went by himself to look at a place, and the owner agreed to rent to him. Later, when my dad returned to sign the lease, he brought his wife (my mother), who was obviously black, the owner suddenly said the apartment was already rented. But my dad knew the real reason why he was denied.

Wow, that happened in Hyde Park, a liberal, integrated community?

Cheryl: There were pockets of racism in Hyde Park, certain blocks. We ended up living in an apartment one block west, on Woodlawn. My parents lived there for almost 30 years.

My earliest memory of racism was when I was four. I didn’t even know what racism was. I was down south in Louisiana, and I went to see a movie at a theater with my cousins who were darker-skinned. A lady told them to go upstairs. The lady told me to go downstairs. I said, “Can’t I sit with my cousins?” I was light-skinned, and the lady didn’t realize I was black. She shouted at me, “You’re with them!? Go upstairs to the balcony!” It was the first time anyone ever spoke harshly to me. I don’t care how old you are. A kid can feel hate and rejection.

Another time, around 1979, I was in Woolworth’s on 53rd Street with my son who was about two at the time and dark-skinned–like chocolate. He was playing in the aisle with a little white girl, the way kids do. When the girl’s dad saw them together, he yelled to his daughter, “Get away from him!” Again, it was obviously because my son was black.

My brother did two tours of duty in Vietnam, and when he came home, he was taking classes at the Circle (UIC) campus. He was crossing the street there, around Taylor and Halsted. Apparently, he wasn’t walking fast enough because a guy in a car yelled, “Get off the street, n-word (* my word, not hers. I won’t print that word here.)!”

My older son, who was married at the time, was walking down the street with his wife and her sister when they were robbed. My son called the police and when they came, my son, who is an artist, gave them a detailed sketch of the man and what he was wearing. The cop told him that wasn’t enough information to go on. But what was really happening was understood. The cop thought it wasn’t worth his time to pursue it. It was like he thought black people have no value.

Today, there isn’t as much blatant racism. But sometimes you can feel racism in the air. And if someone does do or say something racist, it’s all over social media. The exposure can be career-ending so people dial it back a bit. Still, we’ve lost ground when Trump was in the White House.

But personally, I don’t do “isms”–racism, classism or sexism. I always hated “isms.”

Are there things a white person should do or not do when they’re with black people?

Cheryl: Yes.

1. Never touch a black woman’s hair or ask to touch her hair.

2. Never pat a black man on the top of his head. It makes them feel like they’re being treated like animals. It’s about domination, like “I own you.” If you’re being friendly and want to touch a black man, touch his shoulder.

3. Never call a black man, boy. And for that matter, don’t call an adult black woman, girl.

4. Develop a relationship with black folks, get to know them and ask questions. As a black woman, it hurts my heart when I hear of a black person committing a heinous crime. But if you’re white and have never spoken to any black people and only hear about black people committing crimes from watching TV news, you’re going to assume all black people commit crimes. Don’t assume anything. Continue to talk, communicate.

Have your sons ever been treated poorly by the police?

Cheryl: Yes. When my son was a teenager, he was stopped by the police often– while driving and even walking down the street. And he wasn’t a bad kid. I raised gentlemen. One time, my son was crossing the street to meet me at the front door, and a cop put him on the hood of a car, frisking him. I had to tell the cop to leave him alone, that he was my son.

Kids get lost in the system because of incidents like this. That’s a problem for the community. But my best friend is a cop. I’ve taught my son that the police aren’t bad. There are just some bad people who happen to be police.

I think cops should be held to a higher standard. I don’t like the blue code of silence. If you commit a crime, I’m going to turn you in. I don’t care if it’s a black guy or Jeffrey Dahmer. There’s a level of disrespect and disregard for the police. The problem is young people don’t have a good authority figure. There’s no “Officer Friendly.”

What do you think needs to be done to curb violence in Chicago?

Cheryl: It’s about the breakdown of the family and having no one to teach respect. Young people need to have a momma and daddy or a strong momma or daddy to teach them respect. There needs to be structure, accountability. Kids need jobs or some supervised activity to keep them busy and out of trouble. And there needs to be consequences. If you’re over 15 and shoot someone, you’re old enough to go to grown-up jail.

How did you feel when OJ Simpson was found innocent?

Cheryl: I must admit I was happy back then because of the way black folks have been treated (by the system). I was happy he was found innocent–to have a win no matter how ugly the win was. Looking back, I’m a little embarrassed I felt that way.

How do you think being a light-skinned black woman has affected you in society?

Cheryl: There is colorism in the black community. People treated me ugly because I was light. When I was a child, I was called hurtful names like “half-breed” and “yellow” (by other black kids). Not so much anymore, but in the past, there were black people–adults–who didn’t like me because of the color of my skin. There was resentment, this belief that light-skinned people were snobby, that they thought were better than others, that they got treated better.

On the other hand, when dealing with white people, they aren’t as threatened when they see a light-skinned person. I initiated this idea, but my husband, who has dark skin, has me go first when we go into a restaurant or business in a predominantly white area to break the ice. “Soften the way,” he says.

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  • Thank you for a thoughtful and thought-provoking interview.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    Thank you, Margaret. You are very welcome!

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