Dialogue With a Journalist Who Fears She is Becoming a Racist
Does it ever make sense for a person of color to talk with somebody who says they might be a racist?
That's the quandary I faced recently, when considering whether to reach out to Cathy Salustri, a white writer for the Gulfport Gabber who has written a series of articles on the notion that living in a predominantly black, petty crime filled neighborhood is turning her into a racist.
I called her up, and after a short conversation, invited her to speak at a meeting of the Tampa Bay Association of Black Journalists, which I lead. It seemed to fit in neatly with our mission -- here was a reporter writing for a neighborhood publication admitting a serious and growing chip on her shoulder towards black people. Some members didn't want to deal with it -- they figured we'd never change her mind, so why bother? -- but I sometimes wonder if that isn't partly just fear of a messy conversation.
So we hosted Salustri Saturday at the beginning of our regular meeting. And I'm still not sure how I feel about it.
In an odd way, I feel I learned more about my fellow TBABJ members than Salustri, who seemed shocked about the personal impact from a stream of petty crimes and quality of life issues in her black neighborhood -- black guys propositioning her when she walks her dog, items stolen from around her home, loud music and crowd of young unemployed folks hanging out during the day.
Now, when she sees folks who look like the people who are working her nerves in her neighborhood, she gets tense. And she feels that sentiment spilling over into her dealings with other black folks. She wondered if such unspoken sentiments among postal workers, police, sanitation workers and others aren't an explanation for why the area's services are so irregular. She also suggested city officials who want to paint the area as a successful neighborhood are ignoring the problems.
(One thing that surprised me: she said her articles on these ideas for the Gabber came from her editor's insistence that she put hr biases out in public by writing about them. But would any black person who read them trust her to serve as a source for stories? She also said many white people responded to her blog posts by saying they felt the same way and it was OK.)
Frankly, it's nothing black folks haven't dealt with 10,000 times before; those who want to take the problems of the black underclass and use them to define all black people. Why did Salustri think she was so special?
Still, I thought the discussion went well. Members shared personal stories of growing up in suburbia, teaching classes of black and white kids, facing down their own prejudices and facing the prejudices of others. Some of us wondered how she could move into a neighborhood with three crackhouses and not expect some level of petty crime. How that transforms from an antipathy toward all black people is something Salustri herself couldn't explain. And would someone who really is becoming a racist worry about it so much?
I made the point of separating someone who is a bigot -- lives their lives convinced some races are better than others -- from people with tiny prejudices built on class AND race stereotypes. Comparing my own struggle to unlearn the homophobia of my childhood, I talked about how everyone committed to eliminating prejudice from their lives struggles with some awful idea brought by experience or upbringing.
I don't think you judge a person on whether they have such ideas. You judge a person by what they do, once they have the idea. Do you resist the prejudice you know is wrong, or do you accept it, to keep from facing awful truths about yourself and your ideas?
But when it all ended, Salustri seemed a little disappointed. I overheard a remark about the discussion being too "polite," as if she expected some emotional confrontation. She left so quickly, I didn't really have time to ask her how she felt about it all. But I felt proud of my fellow TBABJ members -- we engaged her with an open heart and respect, even if we were a bit skeptical of her actions and exasperated by her conclusions.
There were reporters there from WMNF-FM, Creative Loafing and the St. Petersburg Times -- a former liberal who claims she's turning into a racist seems to be hot news -- so I figure there will be lots of pieces exploring what happened.
Unfortunately, I think this discussion ended the way many such conversations do; with folks still pretty much believing what they believe, unmoved by the thoughts of others which contradict their view.
It's the most frustrating thing about my work, both with TBABJ and as a columnist. Sometimes, all you can do is put the ideas out there. What people do with them -- whether they use the resources you offer and learn from your example -- is mostly up to them.
UPDATE: Cathy has responded to this blog post with a short message of her own, clarifying her reaction. It follows from here: