Chicago Sun-Times
Discussions across the racial divide

Stepping Out of My Comfort Zone

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"Shhhhhh," I hissed loud enough to get my son's attention.

We were trekking east on 18th St. on Saturday evening, making our way to the city's annual "Venetian Night" celebration. The chatter from our group, which included four excited children, was a bit over my comfort level. Funny thing is, I doubt I would have felt the same way had we been walking in the area surrounding Washington Park.

"Venetian Night" wasn't on my summer-to-do list.

On a simmering evening, I usually head for a festival in Washington Park on the South Side. But I decided to join my son and his family at the downtown event touted as having fireworks that are better than the display the city puts on for the 4th of July.

Earlier in the day, it seemed like a good idea to take the small barbecue grill, some burgers and hot dogs for the kids, and set up a picnic in an area where we could view the parade of boats. But as the time got late, I started fretting over the barbecue grill.

I know the protocol at Washington Park. Heck, you can bring the barbecue grill, tent, boom box, and dining room table if you want to, and nobody bats an eye. But is that the way they do it at Grant Park?

Even though my son assured me that it was perfectly O.K. to bring a barbecue grill, I wasn't convinced. It didn't help that we were sweating down 18th Street dragging a huge cooler, chairs, charcoal, blankets, picnic baskets and the mini-Weber.

By the time we got to row of expensive Dearborn Park townhouses, I was feeling ghetto.

Hence, the "Shhhhhh."

That was all my son needed to break into his best Dave Chappell imitation of "Negroes" trying not to offend "White folks," as he tipped down the sidewalk pulling the cooler.

My: "what will white folks think?" is a habit I learned from my father. He always worried about how his children were perceived, and he especially didn't tolerate our talking loud or acting a fool in front of white people.

Of course, no one was paying us any attention. The few whites we ran into smiled politely and went about their dog-walking business, and the lone black woman we encountered stopped only long enough to ask what was going on.

And you know what?

The first thing we saw when we got to the park behind the Shedd Aquarium was a white man happily barbecuing.

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Your blog is interesting and thought provoting. I grew up in Chicago, but live in Florida now. My dad sends me copies of your column often.

Your comments about race hit home with me because I am in the deep south and find that the racism here feels covert especially in the workplace.

It's the little things that are said or not said. It's the reactions to what I as a black woman do or say on a normal basis.

To me seems to be ignorance of a culture rather than blatant racism.

We all need to expand our horizions and learn how other cultures perceive different things.

That will help us all deal with racism in a better light.

What was the point of this this article? Seems to me you have nothing else to talk about.


It's called "lightening up," but if you didn't get the point, there's no point in trying to explain it to you.

LOL We all have had those moments of what would the white person and any other person think. Most of the time whites and others are so worried about what would we think too that everyone is on pins and needles for nothing. for example if I am on an elevator with a white lady she clucthes her purse tight and i try to seem non- threatening by going to a far corner. It is comical. We both have our fears hers is "oh my god I hope he does not try anything" while mine is "oh my god hope this lady don't start tripping I don't feel like going to jail today" But I know what you mean.

I didn't think I'll like your blogs. I truly addicted to the column, though. This is a funny story.

What? I must really be ghetto. I'm sure we're about the same age and I grew up here in the city in a two parent family and I don't remember my parents ever caring what white people thought about anything. I do my thing no matter who or what anybody thinks, black white hispanic Asian whatever. Seems you're color struck.

Ms. Mitchell, we are from different generations, but I have the exact feelings you do. Even if we are in a place where every white, Chinese, Mexican, etc. child is talking loud or misbehaving, I make sure my children are well-behaved. As irrational as it may seem, I feel that the moment my children act up, their misbehavior will be seen in a totally different light than the misbehavior of others.

Yeah, its kind of ashamed we feel that way sometimes. That's one of those 'lingering effects' we need to work on shaking. Especially here in Chicago. There's no place in this city where blacks should feel uncomfortable. I respectfully predict that you will soon realize that his blog stuff is too much work for what the Sun-Times pays you Mary ;-)

My parents were much older and they had the same mentality. I recall attending the auto show year after year in my Sunday best clothes, hard shoes, etc... Only to get there and see "other" people comfortably enjoying the festivities. I vowed not to live my life trying to "show" someone I belong in the same world as them.


Who doesn't like barbeque? White folks gotta eat too!

You know, it doesn't take something tragic (like flying airplanes into skyscrapers) to remind us that there are the same amount of things that make us the same, than that divide us. Now and again, those things jockey for position but it's still the same mantra, day in and day out.

As I said before, I grew up on the low end and in Englewood. As a child our parents and grandparents didn't tolerate us acting up in public, regardless if everyone else were hanging from the stratosphere or not. Heck, that had nothing to do with white people, that was just good parenting on my folks' part. We weren't there to show the folks of Chicago that we were well behaved black children, the fact of the matter is that my parents weren't having any craziness from us in public, or anywhere else on the planet for that matter. Plain and simple. The issue is this, in my humble opinion: Why are we so worried about what other people think, esp when it comes to perfect strangers? Make your assumptions about me, I really don't care. Walk with your head high and with a purpose, and they won't have to guess if you're carrying a big stick or not while you're walking silently - it won't even matter - because folks will know you mean business. With that being said this is not an excuse to step on toes or to be stiff and condescending, either. Treat everyone you run into out in the streets like you would want to be treated until they give you reason to do otherwise and if they do, they're not worth your time anyway.

I enjoyed this article, esp when you guys showed up to the Shedd Aquarium. Good stuff..

When I read this, my first thought was: she's lost her mind. WHO CARES IF YOU BARBECUE?!??!?!?! But then, I thought about it, we're from different generations. My experiences in life in regards to the dynamics of race can't compare to yours. Your feelings on the matter are valid, so I really can't say anything bad about it, I can just try to understand. It's hard to shake your upbringing. For me, it boils down to common courtesy, not "what will the white folks think".

I decide on which actions and behaviors are appropriate based upon whether it would offend or bother ME if someone ELSE (regardless of race) was doing it.

Did you remember to bring the watermelon? There's a little bit of ghetto and country in all of us. On a serious note. I have noticed that a lot of non-black people I encounter daily, try their best to assimilate themselves into our culture. I know I am truly blessed to be a card carrying member of the black community. Keep up the great work!!!

We will all be better off when we stop worrying about what not just white people but anybody for that matter thinks of us as Individuals and as a ethnic group. I believe that truly is the biggest stumbling block for many Black Folks. They live and keep themselves in a constant state of confussion not knowing who they are or what they represent. Stick to being and doing you whenever and wherever you go because they surely ain't worried about what a Black person thinks about them or how they act. Keep It real and you won't have to worry about these minor hang-ups. Please remember that we were freed from slavery and no longer have to Please Massa.

I gues I feel that in some ways...but I tire of making white people feel comfortable I can't defer to someone else's comfort so as to not validate any stereotypes...I remember the dread in a group of four white people's faces when they realized that I was getting off the Metra with them at 10 o'clock at night in Lake Forest coming from Ravinia...yeah yeah, people will say well wouldnt you be cautious if you were getting off a train with people you didnt know into pitch suburban darkness...whatever, I laugh loud and eat watermelon in public

I try to make sure my children are well behaved no matter who is in our presence. I do feel a sense of dread when the audience is mostly Caucasian and there are a few Black teenagers/young kids acting a little crazy. I tend to think that they are thinking that we all behave like that. In the past I'd give the kids dirty looks to say, "behave!" Since random acts of violence are more common than random acts of kindness these days I just look past it and point out to my kids what not to do.

Mary, i think you have a problem being black. Over the years you have seemed to struggle with your blackness. Move on and stop thinkig about what other people think. I am black and many black people look down or up on me. ghetto people come from all over in all races. All races have people that does not fit some standards that we have set for ourselves. i do not associate with drug users and never will black or white, asian, african, or what ever - so does that make me a problem. Mary just measure up to yourself and be the person that you want to be. As I said people will not like you and don't even know you, so why care.

RE: Previous comment correction:

Dear Blog manager,
Please change the word, llluminated to, [eliminated].

Thank you!

kids are crazy everywhere you go.

I think there are just more minority children in Chicago, so they stick out more, but trust me, I've been out in the burbs and those kids are nuts as well.

Teaching your children/grandchildren to adapt their behavior to their surroundings is not (or at least should not be) a racial issue. It is simply a matter of being polite and respectful to the people around you regardless of color. If you are on a crowded, noisy downtown street, it is ok to be loud. If you are on a quiet residential street it is appropriate to try to maintain the peace for the people that live there as you pass through. Being loud and creating a scene on a quiet street is not a "black thing" it is a rude thing.

Behaving in front of white folks. I am not sure to laugh or to feel your agony. I think I will do both...*smile*...My parents were about respecting them first. If not there were consequences to pay. And I don't mean a time-out either....*LOL*

I would like to ask white people posting to Ms. Mitchell's Blog, "How did you guys and gals feel when venturing into an all Black community?" Whether it was doing the 60's,70's or present day 2006?

Did you change your behavior?

mary: Your comments about Venetian night reminds of going up on the west side of Chicago. The building that we lived in was located on Austin and Division street. Anyone who knows the area is aware of the Chicago side and the Oak Park sides of the streets. My mother deliberately shopped in the Oak park stores like Jewel instead of the smelly, overly priced liquor/grocery stores in Chicago. My sister would look around and get scared because she did'nt see any african americans in the stores. Nobody ever said anything to us or treated us poorly. The cashier took our food stamps in the same manner as the people using cash. Sometimes the weird feelings are about african americans realizing that we belong some place as much as any one else.

Mary With all these comments I read today We sound more"racist" then the "white folk"

"I would like to ask white people posting to Ms. Mitchell's Blog, "How did you guys and gals feel when venturing into an all Black community?" Whether it was doing the 60's,70's or present day 2006?

Did you change your behavior?"

I'll bite. : )

It really depends on the context. I went to UIUC, and I remember dropping off a friend (black) of mine in the South side coming home one weekend, maybe 1990. I took a wrong turn off of the expressway, and next thing I knew I was staring down the Robert Taylor homes canyon. I kind of looked at my friend for some advice and he pretty much gave me the "we don't want to be here, but you really don't want to be here" look, so I floored it in reverse, did a U-turn and got back on, stat.

I also delivered pizzas for a while for a real sketchy chain down there, we used to hear stories that the black gangs had a "Poalr Bear" club for initiation, meaning you had to beat up some random white person. I suspect that was hype, or something created by a delivery who got jumped looking to make some sense out of it. Either way, I never had any problem delivering in the public housing or the all-black areas.

In fact, in one neighborhood, I remember the family ushered me inside while they counted out the 6 or 7 bucks for the pizza. It almost made me cry how kind they were about it, they obviously were making a huge sacrifice, and paid more than half of the bill with change (including a small tip, which was still more than most of the frat guys who even bothered to tip at all).

otoh, during the Rodney King mayhem, I had a half dozen black guys come and surround my car (an old 68 buick convertible) talking trash and acting all crazy (the streets were packed full of people looking to be angry and to take it out on someone they didn't know), and I look at one of them and realize it's a good friend of my roommate freshman year. I looked at him like "WTF is your problem?" and when he recognized me he looked embarassed as hell, and quickly got his crew off of my car and somewhere else.

substitute teaching in all-black schools was all over the map. generally speaking, the grade school/middle school kids were wonderful. so much energy and enthusiasm, even if a bit rowdy.

but by high school? something happens and many are totally militant about the race thing & were unwilling to even let down their anger and guard to give me a chance, it's really shooting yourself in the foot IMO. unless you can convince highly successful black folks to take sub-par paying teaching jobs in the city, it isn't ever going to get better if anyone who isn't black is given the 3rd degree when they try to teach your kids how to better themselves.

there's nothing racial about MATH for example. the excuses I heard for why kids wouldn't do their homework or pay attention in class tanged from lame ("I'm gonna be in the NBA, I don't need to learn this crap") to ludicrous ("I'm gonna end up in jail anyway, so what's the point").

I made a point of reminding the kids who told me they didn't bother to do their homework because "I might be dead tomorrow, so I gotta live for now" that, urban homicide rates notwithstanding, they were all stil alive week after week, just with lousy grades and an inability to even balance a checkbook in many cases.

and don't get me wrong, there were plenty of kids I met doing just fine if not thriving, but those kids are getting dragged down by their peers who can't stay focused for 45 minutes in a class setting.

part of the problem is undoubtedly all the soda and candy kids are eating all day, not to mention the lack of real gym classes where kids can be kids and can work off some of that energy and get soem exercise.

but in the end, life is about choices. You can choose to believe that you have the power to change your life for the better, or you can choose to believe that life is a giant conspiracy against you. Although there may be elements of truth to both of these points, I highly advise the former as far as a life-philosophy goes, because we all have to live our own lives, and we're all held responsible for our own choices.

Great post and it made me think of two items from my past.
I am white and Jewish, when I was a kid in the '50's my folks would take us to the Polo Matches in Oak Lawn. This was not the place or time when Jews did that sort of thing. My parents spent much effort telling us kids to keep quiet and be polite, so we would fit in. And we weren't even visually different from the rest of the crowd.

Present day or maybe recent past. I live in Hyde Park now and used to shop in the now lamented Cub Foods at 87th and the Ryan. First time there, I'm the only white face in the store. I admit a bit of nerves, but I quickly relaxed and have always been treated no better or nor worse than anyone else by store workers or other shoppers.

What does this mean? I don't know, but thought I'd comment.

I think minorities shouldn't change most behaviors at all,because I have noticed that the more certain behaviors are criticized the more they are copied by whites (hip hop,dance ect.) if our talk,walk,attitude offends people so much why are young whites buying hip hop more then we are emulating and posing to the max on television and in nightclubs if our behavior is so bad? Could it be they like our style but have problems with our color?And to the young lady who thinks that blacks are more racist then others, wake up!We have had the race card played on us for 400 years.Read your history books.........

"if our talk,walk,attitude offends people so much why are young whites buying hip hop more then we are emulating and posing to the max on television and in nightclubs if our behavior is so bad? Could it be they like our style but have problems with our color?"

The answer is no.

it shouldn't come as a surprise that young people of all backgrounds tend to rebel against authority (and their parents).

dressing in baggy clothes, slang and "funkiness" in general is not exactly in vogue in corporate America.

this is absolutely the kind of accusation ("you like our music but hate us because we're black") that makes white people roll their eyes in disbelief.

Theres one thing to act a fool & to act a fool just to get attention because I'm black and I'll do whats I want and if you gots a problem with that I'll scream racism.
Black people have to make a big deal over nothing and they have to make sure everyone knows about within a 1 mile radius of them.

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great column you have! love this story.

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This page contains a single entry by Mary Mitchell published on July 31, 2006 5:01 AM.

What is Racism? was the previous entry in this blog.

Meeks Disavows the N-Word is the next entry in this blog.

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