My parents talked a lot about growing up in the Jim Crow South, where they were treated like second-class citizens, denied the right to vote or even to dine in a restaurant.
That was their way of preparing me for the discrimination they knew I would face as a Black person in America.
I’m grateful for their tutelage. It helped prepare me for those days when racist vitriol fills my inbox and readers leave me ugly telephone messages. I know I’m being targeted and why.
I’ve spent a lifetime swallowing rage and trying to seek the moral high ground. I’m only human, though. Some days, I wind up triggered anyway.
The last time it happened was earlier this week after I learned about that ugly incident on Sunday with the Pennsylvania lieutenant governor’s wife. You’ve probably heard about it by now. It made national headlines and has been all over TV news.
I learned about it on Monday. I had been calmly scrolling through my Twitter feed and after watching Giselle Barreto Fetterman’s brief video of the encounter, I was outraged.
Here’s the thing: I’ve never met Barreto Fetterman. I’ve mostly only seen her in photos with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman.
But I am sure about this: She was singled out because she’s a woman of color.
It started on Sunday after Barreto Fetterman slipped away from her home in Braddock without her security detail to buy fresh kiwi on sale at a nearby Aldi’s store. As she waited in line to make her purchase, an older woman approached and began saying things like “There’s that N-word that Fetterman married. You don’t belong here."
She followed Barreto Fetterman to her car. Then, the vile verbal assailant leaned in the direction of Barreto Fetterman’s car window and said, “You’re a n—.” Barreto Fetterman captured the last seconds of the ugly encounter on video.
Barreto Fetterman, who was born in Brazil and was undocumented before becoming an American citizen in 2009, was understandably shaken. Anyone would have been.
“She saw me as someone inferior to her simply because I wasn’t born in this country," Barreto Fetterman told me Monday. “That kind of mentality is so hurtful.”
The last four years have made folks especially bold with their racism and xenophobia. They’re encouraged by a president who came into office referring to Mexicans as “rapists,” who emboldened right-wing extremist Proud Boys, telling them to “stand back and stand by,” and who insists on referring to the coronavirus as the Chinese virus.
American racism predates Trump, though. Bigotry and chauvinism are sewn into the very DNA of this country. Slave-owning Founding Fathers who didn’t see fit to give their wives and daughters the vote threaded the proverbial needle of racism and sexism before pulling it through the fabric of the United States Constitution.
Trump could try to ease racial tensions. Instead, his rhetoric and racial dog whistles make people feel free to express their prejudices because there are “very fine people on both sides.”
“I think that if you have the highest leadership openly making fun of people and dehumanizing them, I think it will for sure inspire some to follow,” Barreto Fetterman pointed out.
Her reaction to the sordid affair is an example of grace and models Michelle Obama’s 2016 campaign slogan, “When they go low, we go high.” Historically, that’s how civil rights marchers made their point, demonstrating peaceful nonviolent resistance against dog-wielding police and authorities using fire hoses to disperse activists.
“I want to live in a place where I can believe something different than you and we can disagree on everything but we still can be kind to each other and respectful to each other," Barreto Fetterman said. "I just want to get back to that place.”
So do I. So do most Americans, which is why I’m counting the days until Nov. 3.