I Don’t See You


When I was younger, through the grace of a small business loan, my father started his own grocery store on the East Side of Waterloo. As I grew up, I eventually learned what the West and East sides of town meant. There’s a bend in the Cedar River where it’s the west and east side of the city, but really the East Side is pretty much north of the river whereas the West Side is south of the river. But to mark the parts of town racially, the East Side was and probably still is the poorer side of the city, and it’s the area where Blacks were segregated. My father’s customers were a diverse mix of poor, working class, and upwardly advancing folks—both African American and white.

According to the most recent statistics, Waterloo, Iowa, the seat of Black Hawk County, has a population of 68,406. The racial demographics are 77.3% White, 15.5% African American, and 5.6 % Latino. As cities in Iowa go, Waterloo is one of the most racially diverse.

As a white person and as someone who was taught from his parents that everyone should be treated the same whatever their race, I’ve collected what people have said about race in my mind. We all do. We collect our experiences.

11:30: Sundays were one of my favorite days to work. Mornings were usually quiet. Then after churches let out, the rush came followed by a lull after lunch. This Sunday Jim and I were working. He was at the checkout counter. I was working the deli, stocking the cooler, and taking in and counting aluminum cans for redemption—a job I hated.

My dad’s store was one you don’t see that often anymore, a small independently run grocery store. The last time I was in town for a visit, I drove back to the area the store was located. I had always been aware of the two different trailer parks near the store, but when I was there again, I had forgotten the size and density of them.

One of my “friends” on Facebook was circulating an image that turned into a meme among African Americans who are originally from or who live in Iowa. The digital image, black background with white script, says, “Yes, there are Black People in Iowa.” I suspect the image was created in frustration when they would introduce themselves and mention where they’re from.

I worked for my Dad for years. One of my favorite jobs was stocking the walk-in cooler—stocking the forties, six packs, and twelve packs of beer; filling in the dairy products; replenishing the pop. Especially when it got hot, working in the cooler was a respite.

12:45: They were an African American couple. They came in pretty regular. They were waiting there in line at the checkout between the candy bar and gum display and rack of Hostess goodies. The man wore a grey suit—the woman an intricate purple dress with a large ivory hat. They had stopped by after church.

I also liked cutting luncheon meat and cheese. Luncheon meat is the ambrosia of the working class: souse, p&p loaf, bologna, head cheese, salami, and chopped ham. Every week was a new special, but there was always chopped ham, a cheap meat product spliced together into a loaf with trimmings and spices. The gelatinous goo would coat the slicer, and the sweet, fatty smell always sickened me. When I think of food associated with not having much money, I think of chopped ham. My dad who grew up on a farm in northeastern Missouri during the Depression, on the other hand, thinks of ham hocks and beans.

My father said if you treat customers fairly and give them fair prices, then they’ll come back. From my perspective, our African American customers seemed more loyal. They were a strong proportion of our regulars. Some white people simply came in for deals, the loss leaders. At least it seemed that way from my perspective at the time.

1:00: And then a man came in and told Jim to call the cops—the guy had just gotten punched in the face.

To divide up the students in my junior high school, there was always an A and a B team in each grade. Teachers assured us they didn’t base teams to indicate which one was better or smarter, but that they were doing it just to organize classes and schedules. They said the groups were “random.” In sixth grade I took classes on the B team side of the first floor, which had a predominantly larger black population than the A team on the other end of the floor. My homeroom was probably about 50% African American.

When I got punished for laughing at a joke too loudly and was made to write sentences, DeSean defended me, “He didn’t do anything. He was just laughing.” DeSean also got to write sentences.

When I learned more about racism years later, I found out that Christian defenders of slavery used the Bible to support their bigotry: “The Curse of Ham.”

When racists are depicted on television or film or in fiction, the authors often follow the “white trash” characterization—the long stringy hair, the unkept beard, usually a Southern accent, the ratty jeans, usually a man. That description is as much a cliché as a country song employing the phrase “pouring rain.”

Since I’m naturally not a talkative and confrontational person, silence works for me. One of my ex-girlfriends told me I was “stoic,” which wasn’t a compliment. Often silence acts as armor to defend me from conversations I don’t want to have or to keep my thoughts in, so I don’t say something I might regret.

When I met one fellow Iowan, one who was quite well educated, and I told her I was from Waterloo, she asked with derision, “That’s where all the niggers are, right?”

When people utter their racist thoughts, they assume I agree with them because I’m white.

When I was younger and I’d hear racist comments, I would use silence as a way to show I didn’t agree with them or as a way to change the subject. But silence can also perpetuate bad thinking.

12:45: The guy just kept bringing in more and more empties, dirty and smelly. I was going to have to sort through all sorts of cans, mainly Old Milwaukee and Coke and Pepsi, but it was clear he had been collecting cans from other people or scavenging them from the surroundings—their half-empty state, the dirt, the cigarette butts in them. He had cardboard flats and flats of cans. He just kept going out to his truck, getting them, and bringing them in—a cycle that didn’t seem to stop.

In high school, the locker room for gym was divided by race and class. Mike and I would dress on the north end with all of the African American kids and a smattering of white guys. The other end of the locker room were the kids who went to Hoover, the high school on the extreme west side of the town, the area of higher property values. I was used to the smell of their hair product, the constant “dogging” on each other, the “yo mama” jokes. Mike wasn’t. He went to Hoover.

One of my favorite “yo mama” jokes is, “Yo mama so poor they put her photo on food stamps.”

Back then, food stamps worked just like money. You could spend them on bread, milk, meat, vegetables, and boxed food products. You could spend them on pop and candy. You could send in your kid to buy 5 cent gum twice with one-dollar food stamps to make enough change to buy a forty.

If you check out some online discussions about food stamps, you’ll find one group saying that the majority of people on welfare are white. Another group counters by saying that’s true, but the percentage of people per racial category shows a greater percentage of African Americans on food stamps than whites. Both groups don’t often talk about why people are on welfare. There are historical and societal reasons, not Biblical.

The police cruisers in Waterloo are the traditional white and black, and the emblem of the Waterloo Police Department is the Griffin, which are painted in red on the doors. According to various sources, griffins are symbols of courage, strength, wisdom, and vengeance.

12:50: Enraged, the black gentleman stormed out the front door of the store, found the guy in the parking lot, and punched him in the nose. Simple and direct. No words said.

Waterloo was and is a factory town. When I was kid, we not only had the multiple plants dedicated to John Deere tractors, there was also Rath Packing Company, which was an immense slaughterhouse and packing facility right by the Cedar River. When my mom drove me to get groceries at the store and later when I drove myself to work, we go right past Rath. By the time I was working at my dad’s store, Rath had gone bankrupt, and the yards sat empty.

When I got to know people from St. Louis and then when I lived there, those who knew the city would warn me about “state streets.” The state streets—Utah, Alaska, Michigan, et al.—are the older part of the city. Those streets are populated predominately by African Americans.

In Waterloo, my parents’ home, where they lived from 1961 to 2010, is on Wisconsin Street. The neighborhood was all white. When my parents sold their home to move to an assisted living facility, some neighbors worried that they’d sell to “blacks.”

1:30: At the checkout counter, Jim just stood there taking it, stewing in stress, anger, and frustration.

When I went back for an event for my college fraternity, I introduced myself to one of the new guys, my brother who is the first “black guy” in my fraternity. When I asked him where he was from, he said, “From South America originally.” I laughed and said, “No, I meant where from in the US—St. Louis, Kansas City?” The suburban kid from St. Louis didn’t want to be considered “African American.” For him, being South American was a safer play in a predominately white fraternity.

I’ve wondered whether an African American would have gotten a small business loan like my father did.

In 1989 when the movie came out, a reporter asked Spike Lee a question about what viewers “should learn” from Do The Right Thing. Lee smiled and quipped that maybe black folks should be able to get financing to run their own pizzerias.

Jim and I worked together a lot. He was the son of lady who had previously worked for my dad. He went to East High School. I went to West. He told me once that there were “both black and white niggers.”

When I would return to Iowa from Alabama and I would tell people I was going to graduate school in Alabama, some people would make remarks about the horrible discrimination and treatment that happened in the South. But as one of my professors said about living in Alabama, it’s also the “cradle of Civil Rights movement.” And Southern kids, at least the ones I taught, they know their history.

Remarks about the South like those, what some Southerners would call “Yankee” attitudes, would also make me think about the similar horrible discrimination and inequality that African Americans faced and still face in the North: subtle racism, institutional racism.

At the University of Alabama, there’s a historical plaque to note George Wallace’s “Stand at the Schoolhouse Door” right outside Foster Auditorium. Outside Gorgas Library, there’s also a plaque that commemorates the Confederate officers who died in the “War of Northern Aggression,” those who fought for “state’s rights.”

As related on its website, the University of Alabama “is #1 in the nation in enrollment and graduation of minority doctoral students under the Southern Regional Education Board’s Minority Doctoral Scholars Program.” In addition, “UA is one of the top five public flagship universities in the nation in the enrollment of African American students. For the 2011-2012 academic year, African-Americans represent 12 percent of the student body.”

A guy I worked with would sometimes have to suffer through being called “articulate.” He’s a black man in higher education.

 1:30: After the police left, the guy came back in, embarrassed and full of wrath. After I gave him the slip to indicate how much money he got for all the pop and beer cans (5 cents a can), he lit into Jim at the checkout: “You all are nigger lovers! All of you! To sit there while some nigger does that to a white man is fuckin’ shit. Every one of you — nigger lovers. I will never come in this fuckin’ store again.” I was there by the larger cooler by the deli counter, not saying a word, not knowing what to say. Paralyzed.

I remember asking my parents when I was kid about why some people disliked Blacks and Jews, why they called them names. I didn’t get it. My dad told me that people just don’t think for themselves, and they just repeat stupid ideas that came before them. There was some discussion about getting to know a person as an individual but no talk about “content of character.” I read about that later along with Malcolm X’s story.

Mr. Jones was passionate, and he was the first black man I knew who seemed to have power—7th grade social studies. In the spring, we got a new teacher after his breakdowns in the middle of the classroom, the sudden crying. My classmates were nice and wary, at the start. Then he lost control of the class. They made fun of him. His wife had cancer. She was dying.

I would lie in bed and think about racism. What are the causes? For a long time, I chalked it up to ignorance and fear.

Once my dad said, “Boy, it sure is hot?” as he waited on a customer. Flushed with anger, Javon spewed out, “Are you calling me ‘boy’?!

When Dr. Washington, a very successful African American educator, came into the store, you’d see the distance between him and black men who hadn’t gone to college or didn’t have a white-collar job. They wouldn’t even talk to him, just steer clear—no interaction.

Social commentators sometimes call racism a societal cancer. Some biologists might contend that homo sapiens as a species is naturally tribal.

1:31: Jim—sweaty and flustered—told me, “I have to get out of the front. I’m going to stock the friggin’ cooler now.”

“Let’s just go to the other side. C’mon. It’s no big deal,” Mike said. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had been on this side of the locker room since the beginning. James overheard and said, “It’s no big deal, Tim. Go over to the other side and be with your white friends.”

Shame trumps ignorance.

When I worked at the liquor store my dad started after he sold the grocery store, booze choices fell along racial lines—“bumpy face” gin and “Erk & Jerk” brandy for African Americans and whiskey, rum, and vodka for whites, with no noticeable pattern except for Black Velvet. Lots of people bought Black Velvet.

In History class, I learned about the triangle trade of sugar, rum, and slaves. When we learned about the triangle, the professor read part of Cowper’s “The Negro’s Complaint,” “Think how many Blacks have smarted/ For the Sweets your Cane affords!”

In “Fear of a Black Planet,” Chuck D says, “All I got is genes and chromosomes./ Consider me black to the bone./ All I want is peace and love on this planet./ (Ain’t that how God planned it?)/”

12:49: After the second time the guy bumped into his wife, the black gentleman glared and said, “If you bump into my wife, you better say, ‘Excuse me.’”

A Professor of Psychology and Education, Dr. Derald Wing Sue, has researched the prevalence of “microaggression” that people of color deal with on a daily basis. He describes the phenomena in this way: “[M]any well-intentioned Whites consciously believe in and profess equality, but unconsciously act in a racist manner, particularly in ambiguous situations. Racial microaggressions are the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned White people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.”

He further details the effect of microaggression: “Although they may appear like insignificant slights, or banal and trivial in nature, studies reveal that racial microaggressions have powerful detrimental consequences to people of color. They have been found to: (a) assail the mental health of recipients, (b) create a hostile and invalidating work or campus climate, (c) perpetuate stereotype threat, (d) create physical health problems, (e) saturate the broader society with cues that signal devaluation of social group identities, (f) lower work productivity and problem solving abilities, and (g) be partially responsible for creating inequities in education, employment and health care.”

When we discussed the ending of “Black Men and Public Space” by Brent Staples in the college writing class and I asked them about what they thought about Staples coping strategy of whistling classical music to make people be more at ease around him, Jessie, a native of New Orleans and a guy who experienced his share of bigotry and racism, looked directly at me and said, “I think he’s out of his mind!”

12:49: The guy—long stringy grey hair, unshaven, dirty jeans and t-shirt—replied, “I don’t have to. I don’t see you because you’re Black.

Tim N. Taylor is an Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Writing Center at Eastern Illinois University. Tim has published in WPA: Writing Program Administration, Teaching English in the Two-Year College, College English, and other academic journals. He is currently working on a first-year writing textbook with a co-author, and this piece is his first serious foray into creative nonfiction. More from this author →