Where I come from people are white.
I am not saying that they all feed into the stereotypes of a rural town, but I am saying that in my graduating class of about three hundred, we had less than ten people who were not caucasian. As my tenth grade biology teacher put it, “Chariho has the diversity of a tractor pull in the middle of Texas.” What I knew of other cultures was gathered from my love of reading, my mission work through my church, the internet and family vacations to Manhattan.
From all of those factors I feel, had I not been blessed with progressive parents, I could have turned out racist.
For my first year and a half of college I attended PACE University in New York City where, my lilly white world was expanded. The culture shock left me rattled because I began to feel I had hidden reserves about people who did not look like Ralph Lauren advertisement extras. Slowly I began to expand myself, opening my mind to diversity to a point.
When I moved back to Rhode Island I was not phased by the variety of people I was around at CCRI because I felt I had experienced enough in New York to understand my peers.
The Community College of Rhode Island has a very diverse population, but one thing many of us have in common, is that we do not drive new cars. I myself, drive a very sassy, bright blue, 1994 Dodge Shadow named Little Blue. Lil’ B has died on me more times than I care to admit, and so in the name of good karma, I am a sucker for the stranded motorist. I may not be a full blown grease monkey, but driving a soon to be antique bestows upon one a general knowledge of car issues. So, when I see flashers on the side of the road I stop and offer to lend a jumper cable.
Usually, I use common sense to judge whether or not young lady, just barely over five feet tall, getting out of her car to help is of real assistance or just asking for trouble. The day I encountered, we will call him John, my common sense was AWOL.
I was pulling out of the CCRI parking lot when I noticed him, a tall, lanky, hispanic youth of around twenty. His car was was more beaten up than mine and in his tattooed hand he clutched a small, red gas container. Under the doctrine of rape fantasy, I must have quickly surmised it was safe to pull over to his aid because, well, people just do not get raped at ten am in Warwick. This is probably not true, but looking back it’s the only rationalization I can find.
I slowed down next to him and he shouted at me, “Hey, you know where the nearest gas station is?” I quickly replied I did and before he could ask I offered him a ride there.
It was not until he was actually buckled in next to me, that I realized how careless I was being. As John began talking to me about himself, my reservations began to morph into a nervous interest. He explained to me that he came from a tough area in Fall River and had been in jail for six months. Apparently, he was convicted of aggravated assault and battery for smashing a bottle over another man’s head and ever since he had gotten out of jail, he wanted to make a new start.
He told me his plan to enroll in business classes to prepare himself for the legalization of marijuana, an illegal enterprise, I was told he was successfully running at the moment, under the radar. As he enlightened me to this, I nearly drove off the road. What the hell was I thinking? I had just picked up a convicted felon who was probably holding illegal substances on his person at that moment. With these realizations, panic should have set in, but instead, a deep sense of contemplation and understanding came over me.
Despite his questionable investments, his strange motivations and unfortunate hand in life, I found myself relatively at ease with him once the initial shock wore off. Everyone knows not to judge a book by its cover, but I think one should wait until past the first few chapters before making assumptions. So what if John has a few blemishes on his criminal record and the first few chapters of his life were probably not pretty? He was enrolling in school, (supposedly) keeping his parole appointments and attempting to make his business endeavors somewhat legitimate.
When we arrived back at his vehicle with gasoline for the car, he realized he had no gas money to offer me. Insisting he could not leave me empty handed, he dropped a little bag on the seat of the car as he got out with a quick but sincere “thank you”. After I had driven off, and had a chance to further examen the bag he bestowed unto me, I realized it was an eighth, which he had previously described as, “real good s*%#.” I assume this was his way of thanking me and like a foreign exchange student experiencing a new culture, I tried to wrap my head around it.
I admit that on any other day, in any other city, this scenario could have ended with my cold, violated corpse on an autopsy table. But it didn’t. I am not going to fib to you and say that I keep my car doors unlocked when driving through South Providence or that I harbor a soft spot for convicts. I understand that there are bad people in the world, but I wonder if they are truly as close as we assume.
I think if we all took a chance to understand one another, we would realize that the fear we have been harboring was not for a monster, but an unnecessary fear of each other.
Where I come from people are white.