Despite being a Detroit native who grew up in Arizona, I was mostly surrounded by white kids like me during my childhood. Though my family is Jewish, I never experienced discrimination while living in predominately Christian communities. Even as an adult in Seattle, which is more ethnically diverse, I live in a middle class Caucasian world. It wasn’t until I visited Italy that someone helped me glimpse the other side of the race card.
The two couples were white, and they were from Virginia. They mistakenly assumed that I was an uneducated local maid because my beginning Italian was better than their attempts at the language. In 15 years of owning a home in a tiny hill town, they had never bothered to learn more than a word or two of Italian. When I greeted them with, “Buon giorno,” they smiled nervously and brushed past me. In the garden, they turned their backs to me, closing ranks so that I couldn’t sit with them, so I sat on the ground as they spoke over my head to our host. It took a while for me to realize that none of them met my eyes because, to them, I wasn’t there.
The oven buzzer went off, signaling that their welcome lunch was ready, a meal that I had helped our host cook. “Come on in – lunch is served!” I called. They froze. “Are you… American?” they asked, aghast. “Yes,” I smiled. “I live in Seattle.” One of the wives paled.
“We ignored you because we thought you didn’t speak English,” she admitted, like this excused their slight. The minute of outrage I experienced made me see that I could never know the discrimination that others face for their entire lives. For what it’s worth, I’ll never forget the lesson.