Amid the unrest and unease and all the talk of race, on the week leading up to the celebration of Dr. King, I experience a timely epiphany and know that somehow I am not as white as I used to be. I used to be pretty white. Maybe not as white as some, but still I could eat pastrami on white bread with mayonnaise.
Don’t get me wrong; I still experience all the privilege of my lily-like complexion. But my thinking’s starting to change. Maybe my horizon’s wider and my perspective’s a touch broader because I’ve seen some things. I work with poor folks. And I’ve made some friends. And in our neighborhood poverty is the great equalizer. When folks don’t have money, everybody gets treated like a second-class citizen. Struggling folks don’t see skin color the way rich folks do. In this neighborhood, you lean on the one next to you, and he leans on you, and sometimes he’s white and sometimes he’s black. He’s poor like you. Class trumps race.
I caught a glimpse of that lesson years ago as a scholarship student, a freshman at a fairly snooty girls’ school, walking into the kitchen to report for my “Work Study Job” washing dishes. There were three black women in that kitchen working on the evening meal, but only two worked on the students’ meal. The other stood at the stove frying fish for herself and her sisters, and I noticed the white perch on the plate waiting at the edge of the stove and commented on its beauty.
“That’s some nice lookin’ white perch, ya’ got there.”
And with one innocent comment the atmosphere changed and the ground rumbled. And a loud voice called out:
“Betty Lou! We got us a white girl here knows a fish ain’t been fileted!”
And everyone laughed. And from that moment on, I ruled the kitchen as their figurehead, their puppet, their front woman. I tortured some and let others live. I hired and fired and learned where all the bodies were buried because they shared their power with me, and we were a team, a mystical alliance, a plotting group of co-conspirators laughing through survival. We were a force to be reckoned with behind the scenes, anonymous and unrecognized—just three old black ladies behind the stove and their young, white sister knows a fish ain’t been fileted.
Rev. Darlene L. Kelley January 12, 2015 Photo: Darlene L. Kelley