America is not a color-blind nation. The color of a person’s skin is one of the first things we notice, right along with whether they are a man or woman, young or old. Along with that comes our preconceptions about people because of their color. The very meaning of the word “prejudice” means to “pre-judge” and having impressions of people based on how they look is in all of us.
The four Lockportians I interviewed shared what it means to go about their daily lives here in black skin.
Will King, the fitness trainer: “There is always that color when it comes to black folks. But when they describe somebody of white descent they never say white.”
Jayde McDonald, the student: “I grew up until maybe sophomore year in high school hating my skin color because my peers’ parents were never OK with me going into their home because they feared I might steal something or disrespect their house.”
Kandyce Cauley, the new chair of Lockport’s Human Relations Commission: “We definitely had a super sense of separation, maybe even a feeling of inferiority. The eyes weren’t on you for good things but they were on you for negative things. People not expecting you to be as good as your peers. People expecting negative things from you. Black people have to be better to prove themselves and white people don’t really have to prove themselves. They just are better because of what they look like.”
Mark Sanders, the pastor and community police liaison: “Your color is something you can’t hide and this is a predominantly white city. People are still driven by stereotypes. There is still a fear factor. I think there are still people who fear African Americans.”
Sometimes that prejudice is overt.
Jayde tells the story of going with her mother (who is white) and brother to see a house for sale when she was still small. “My brother and I walk up to my mom and started talking to her and the lady looks down and says, ‘Those are yours?’”
“I had a best friend, we were best friends for ten years and her step dad was really racist and we were walking into a black part of town and he goes, ‘Are you guys out of the ghetto yet, I don’t want you to get killed or hurt.’ Why do you automatically assume black people as criminals?”
Mark shared a story about him and his wife looking for an apartment here long ago. “People wouldn’t rent to us or would try to steer us into certain neighborhoods that I knew was intentional.”
The four also shared stories about the ways in which prejudice is played out in more subtle ways that are just as damaging.
Jayde: “If we are in a store we get followed. Especially because my mom is white and she’s short whenever we walk into a situation everyone stops their conversation and stares.”
“Even if I hung out with a white girl for the first time I would always ask, ‘Are your parents OK with black people? Like have you ever had a black person in your house?’ It’s so heavy because what if they see me and they say, you can’t come in. I remember always asking that of my friends.”
Kandyce: “I felt a kind of anxiety all the time, the feeling that I have to be a different me around people who don’t look like me. I have to speak differently, pay attention to how I dress. It’s like I have to point out to them, look I am smart, I’m not from the ghetto, I do know how to speak. It’s a feeling that I have to prove myself whenever I am around people who don’t look like me, which is exhausting.”
They also spoke of how so much of Lockport, even if not intentional, still feels like “white space” to black residents.
I met Will at my favorite coffee spot, Steamworks on Canal Street. He told me, “How often do you see colored people come in here. It’s crazy, because as a black person we can tell what’s a white space by the way it’s laid out. It’s clean, there’s no police around there, oh I’m not supposed to be here.
Can you imagine that feeling that you’re not worthy to be in a clean space with good food?”
I met Kandyce at Scripts on Main Street, a place she suggested. Then I noticed that she ordered her lunch in a to-go container, something she told me she always does when she eats there.
“I always have a feeling of being uncomfortable when I go out in public. There is always less of me than there are of other people. I have never been anywhere in this city to eat or any bar in this city to have a drink anywhere where I feel like there are as many people who look like me as look like the white community. Never, it’s never happened. I’ve lived in this city for 27 years and I still walk in places and feel like people are looking at me like, ‘Well, what are you doing here?’”
Mark told me, “There aren’t a lot of places outside the school system where we mix. There are some businesses here that I’ve never seen an African American working in, even low-level jobs like for teenagers. Pizza parlors and things like that. You have a school system where there is very nil representation of African Americans. You have a government that has zero representation. Compound all of that together and it’s the feeling of being disenfranchised.”
“I am going to bring up an ugly word, privilege,” said Mark. “I know when people hear that word it sparks a level of emotion. But part of that privilege is to be able to go anywhere and feel comfortable. We opened up an ice-skating rink. That’s not for us. We opened up an Ulrich Center. That’s not for us. A lot of the things that this city is pouring money into, in the eyes of the African American population, that’s not for us.”
FRIDAY: The views in and out of Lockport High School and Lockport Police Department.
Jim Shultz, founder and executive director of the Democracy Center, resides in Lockport.
This is the second article in a three-part series by US&J columnist and community activist Jim Shultz. Coming Friday: ‘We just want the same things in life ...’