“Blacks” and “Italians” in Wooster

When we moved to Wooster, Ohio, we had three small children. Two of them had already been swimming for years, so when we found out that this new city had three public pools, we had to try them. I remember summer was approaching and we had to buy pool passes. It was a $90, a hefty sum for us, but we thought it was worth it.

To make sure that we would make the right choice — bummer, we had discovered we had to opt for only ONE of the three sites! — I appealed to an old friend. He and his wife, both deceased now, were an older couple who went to our church and had known us since my years as a graduate student in Indiana. He was a kind, simple, hard-working man who had reached out to our family and loved to serve us in a multitude of ways, but when I asked him which site we should pick, his answered shocked me.

We were sitting at their dinning room table, having just finished a lasagna, which was still half-steaming on the counter by the sink. Without blinking, he said, “You should pick Freelanders. Christmas Run is okay, but stay away from Woodland.” Pause. Same breath, “there are too many Italians and blacks there.” Now the lasagna was steaming in my gut…

I tried to hide my look of incredulity. I thought, “I must have heard it wrong,” but later I double checked with my wife and she confirmed my worse fears — our dear friend was a racist. Well, maybe yes, maybe no. As we came to ponder more on the subject, we came to the conclusion that our friend was a mixed bag — a docile grandfather figure whose thinking had been poisoned along the way by some grossly erroneous assumptions.

On the one hand, he felt so comfortable with us, his foreign friends with thick accents, that he didn’t think twice before he mouthed his offensive remark. For him, we were just like him so he didn’t mind dropping his guard a little. He didn’t consider us “Blacks” or “Italians” but this didn’t give us any comfort. For starters, I am part Black, then there is the slight matter of how I exaggerate in the use of my hands when talking — there is definitely more Italian in me than North American! That whole experience left us with an unsettling feeling in our hearts.

Then a short time later a dear friend, one who had taken upon herself to assume the role of our kids’ surrogate grandmother, complete with attending Grandparents’ Days in school and complaining with Principals if she didn’t think they were treating our children right, she also decided to go “Black” on us.

This lady, who is also deceased now, came to our house one day visibly upset. My wife asked her what seemed to be the matter and she said that she was concerned because a “Black” family had moved into her street. Now you have to understand, this was a village of a couple of thousand people whose only claim to fame was to make sure they ticketed every motorist going a couple of miles above the speed limit in the few minutes that it takes to drive through town. (This is the same town that would one day drive my son into paralyzing fear, after some high school kids started lowering their car window and screaming the “N” word at him, as he walked to his aunt’s house from school).

This perfectly sanitized little town was finally getting a drop of cultural diversity and some people were getting worried. My wife pointed out the obvious to our friend, “How about us? We live here.” Her answer, “Yeah, but you are not ‘Black.'” Once again, our jaws dropped. To think that the dear old lady who was so faithful in church and loved us so much could be a racist? Impossible!

Well, not really. We found out that there are people who are racist and proud of it, others who are racist and embarrassed by it, others who are racist and ignorant of it, and yet others who don’t even know what being a racist is. Our two friends probably fit somewhere between the last two categories. But a racist is a racist is a racist, church-goer-loving-grandmother or not. Unfortunately, I haven’t succeeded in finding a different word that could better describe the views expressed by our two friends in those two conversations we had.

The funny thing is, though, I never loved them less, nor did they love us less, even after those two days that taught me the multidimensional face of racism.

Ivanildo C. Trindade