By Sue Lichtenfels
Forty-seven years ago I was born in the small town of Palmerton, about a 45-minute drive northeast of Allentown, Pennsylvania. We were a white, middle-class town with many residents working at textile mills and industrial manufacturers. There were always tensions about factory layoffs and plant closures. Immigrants and people of color always got the blame for them because they were willing to work at a cheaper wage and for less benefits. And when they weren’t being ridiculed about that, they were accused of being lazy and living off welfare. Town people spewed disparaging remarks and offensive jokes. People, like my aunt, who preferred to date black men were mocked in disgust. Whenever we drove through a black neighborhood in the urban areas, we locked our car doors.
This cultural bias was in opposition to other messages I was getting as a child. I attended the Methodist church with my grandparents where I learned to treat others as I wanted to be treated, and to not judge others unless I wished to be judged. I spent Thursday nights hanging out with the Huxtables on “The Cosby Show” where both black parents were professionals and the kids were no different from me except for our skin color. I fell in love with Whitney Houston’s inspirational music and amazing talent. And throughout my childhood I received only kindness and compassion from the black staff who cared for me during my many stays at Will’s Eye Hospital.
By the time I reached my teens, I knew my beliefs about people of color were not the “norm” in my town. I longed to get out of that toxic environment. A brief opportunity to do so came over the summer of 1990 when I spent a month or so in the city of Pittsburgh. I had been enrolled in a program to learn the many skills and techniques I would need to become an independent adult with vision loss. During that summer I met and befriended two black teens, Brian and Dwayne, who were also enrolled in the program. We hung out together as much as we could that summer. And we promised not to lose touch.
It was painful to have to leave them and return to my closed-minded community. I could no longer tolerate living among others who did not respect people of color. That fall I applied to and was accepted at the University of Pittsburgh. I was able to escape my small town and reconnect with Brian and Dwayne in 1991 when I moved to Pittsburgh for college. Except for a six-month recovery after my spinal cord injury, I’ve only returned to my hometown area for brief holiday visits.
Befriending Brian and Dwayne changed my life. But today, amidst the turmoil in our country, I admit that I have failed them, and every person of color who I have befriended since that summer.
While I have used my privilege to get out of a prejudiced environment, I have not used all that my privilege has afforded me toward ending racial oppression. While I have known better, I have not always worked to bring racial awareness to the ignorant. While I have taught my daughter that all people are equal regardless of their skin color, I have not always spoken up when I have heard someone say something racially inappropriate. While I have always acted respectful when interacting with people of color, I have stood silently by at times when others have not. While racism has stolen countless lives and opportunities, I have been an unintentional accomplice.
Yes, my friends of color, I have failed you. But I will fail you no more. BLACK LIVES MATTER!