Looking back over one's life it seems impossible to empirically prove that a certain experience was a "life-changing moment" - there are too many causes and too many effects. But we all instinctively "know" - without being able to prove it - that certain moments play a role in defining who we are.
A Facebook comment I read recently brought back such a 'teaching moment' from my past. The comment was written by a white woman who worked in retail in Tennessee, where there are not many minority groups. She wrote that she tried extra hard to smile and be helpful to women who wore hijab or who sported a bindi on their forehead, to try to make them feel as welcome as possible. And suddenly, I remembered my childhood.
I spent the first decade of my life in Fayetteville, North Carolina - an achingly typical Southern town - in the 1980's. Fayetteville was (is?) an army town thanks to next-door Fort Bragg, one of the biggest US Army installations in the country. The Vietnam War was supported by many, and the town witnessed many marches and acts of civil disobedience during the Civil Rights movement, where segregation persisted. Even today, there is a sizeable Korean and Vietnamese population there, which I can only assume had to do with war brides. It's telling that the Market House, perhaps Fayetteville's best-known historic landmark, used to (on occasion) sell slaves.
Needless to say, I was the only non-white person in my small kindergarten class. And I remember the awards ceremony for everyone at the end of the year in the gym. One of the awards was for perfect attendance. That year, three kids in the whole elementary school got the award. One was a young black girl whose name now escapes me. She was, as I recall, one of two or three black students in the entire school.
The two white kids went up, one at a time, to receive their awards. After their names, there was polite applause. Then the black girl went up to get her certificate.
No one clapped.
No one, that is, except for my mother. The girl's parents, I suppose, were too stunned.
I was five years old, but I remember. I asked my mother why no one clapped. I don't remember what she said (and neither does she), but how could she explain it to me at the time?
I'd be remiss if I tried now to paint Fayetteville, North Carolina, or the entire South as a racist appendage to the United States. Yes, we did leave Fayetteville eventually, but most of the time, the worst we ever felt was the weight of being the funny brown family. I never got beat up or had slurs thrown at me. Unlike today - and with the possible exception of the Iran hostage affair - we were just a curiosity. Most folks were just curious - wanting to know more about who we were - without an identifiable trace of prejudice. Today, I'm still a proud Southerner who finds much about Southern culture worth celebrating.
But there's no denying our dark history. That moment at the awards ceremony has come back to haunt me over and over again. I've tried to second-guess it - but my mother still remembers it. Racism exhibits itself in that split second pause - oh wait, she's black. I can't imagine every last person deliberately not clapping at the sight of a black girl achieving something - but the sentiment was clearly pervasive enough to cause an awkward silence that no one else felt comfortable breaking. And that just made it worse.
I can't empirically prove it, but I think my becoming an immigration lawyer had something to do with that awards ceremony.