Since joining the staff at the YWCA in Missoula last May as the Racial Justice Intern, I have bookmarked close to a hundred articles, videos, and links to court cases on my internet browser. I spent hours reading, watching, listening, and waiting for me to get it. My job was to write about racial issues locally in a town with very little cultural differences. I sought out help through conversations with women who told me frustrating and heartbreaking stories of discrimination at their jobs that sometimes forced them to resign from their positions. I spoke with friends who identify themselves as allies to marginalized people. I found myself in conversations with friends who had questions concerning political correctness in how to talk about race.
In the end, I am more frustrated than when I began. Most often knowledge empowers you, but the more I knew, the more helpless I felt. Every new aspect of how racist a nation we are, shown by events and conversations around Ferguson and Eric Garner, seemed to uncover an even deeper pit. My position grew heavy, and too big for me to carry, especially as someone who has no idea how it feels to be discriminated against just from their appearance.
Then I started apartment hunting with an infant. After weeks of potential landlords turning me away as soon as I walked in the door, telling me the place was too small for a family, and was best suited for a single person, I looked at a basement apartment with a perspective landlord who enthusiastically tried to sell his space to me.
I stood in the doorway between the bathroom with a corner shower and no tub and the pink kitchen while he looked over the resume I handed him. He flipped it over a couple of times and shrugged, then frowned at the next page.
“Oh,” I said. “Those are copies of my recent paystubs.”
He looked at me for an explanation.
“People ask for proof of income,” I said.
“I believe you,” he said. “Like I said, you’re just the tenant I’m looking for.”
Indeed he had, on the phone, just ten minutes before when I’d called the number on the “For Rent” sign in front of a cute little house. He’d convinced me to wait for him to drive down to show it to me, even though he wanted $900 for a one-bedroom basement apartment. A pink one, at that.
“Name your price, how about $800?” he’d said when I told him I couldn’t afford it. “You’re just the tenant I’m looking for!”
Those words came through the phone like a cool breeze while I sat in my hot truck with no air conditioning. I was in my second month of seriously looking for an apartment I could afford for me and my two daughters. Low-income housing had wait lists of a hundred names, or three years long. In every walk-through for a studio, the landlord lowered his eyes to look at the baby I held, and told me the space was too small for a family. Most of them seemed hesitant to even show the place to me.
When we’d finished walking through the small basement with dead flies scattered on the shampooed carpet, he asked if I wanted to move in. He’d mentioned that he was retired. I wondered if he’d worked in sales. I told him I wasn’t sure. It didn’t have a washer and dryer, and it was more than I wanted to spend. He asked me to name my price again, but I shook my head.
“Do you have, you know, a boyfriend?” he said.
“No,” I said, and adjusted the baby on my hip. I’d already told him it’d just be me and the girls.
“I only ask because of the baby,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“I’ve rented to a lot of single moms,” he said. “They always seem to have some guy causing problems. The one upstairs, she seems to have things under control. I like the single moms ‘cause they don’t party and they keep the place nice, as long as they don’t have the ex-boyfriend comin’ around. Do you have that? Is the father involved?”
I answered in a visible sigh and tight-lipped head shake. But I got close to calling him to say I’d take it for a week after that. It felt that good to be wanted.
Say or think the words “single mom” and the images that come to mind are often not ones of smiling white teeth and clean clothing. People think of dirty faces and clothes, old cars, and run-down apartments. They think of snotty-nosed kids throwing temper tantrums in the grocery store with a mother yelling, spanking, or cursing. Single moms are often associated with bad life choices, domestic violence, food stamps, welfare, and laziness. Reagan’s Welfare Queen gave the hard-working, tax-paying public an image of a bathrobe-clad woman, sitting on a couch watching soap operas, eating Bon-bons. If that specific image isn’t there, an underlying resentment of dishonesty in taking advantage of the welfare systems in place are fresh in their minds.
Because of this discrimination that I often fight to overcome, I have a better understanding of just a small part of what marginalized people might feel. In conversations with friends I am able to use me as an example. Me. White, bachelor-degree-holding me. As women, we know discrimination. We know how it feels to be judged based on our gender. Though it is nothing like experiencing racism, it is a place that we can draw empathy from. Start there.
My position ends this month, and I keep catching myself feeling anxious to not have to think about racially charged issues anymore. How nice for me. I can take a break from it. I can go back to clicking on links to funny cat videos instead of reading articles on immigration, court cases, protests, and torture. I can choose to be oblivious, and you can too. But take a few minutes to listen to the stories. Learn about cultures instead of appropriating them. Imagine living in fear of your child getting shot for holding a toy gun. Start there.
By Stephanie Land, YWCA Missoula Racial Justice Intern