It was a hot spring day in Virginia, and I was exhausted. I’d been walking the neighborhood, knocking on doors and talking to people for hours.
Election Day was quickly approaching and we still had many voters to contact. I wanted to quit for the day, but I knew that wasn’t an option, so I kept walking. I reached into my bag, and pulled out my list. It was crumpled and stained with coffee marks.
This list was important. It contained all of the registered likely voters I needed to speak with. My next address was just down the street. I quickly headed that way.
The house in front of me was small, and painted a light green, with black shutters. The grass in the front yard was a bit brown, overgrown and in desperate need of mowing. As I approached, I heard a friendly, young voice shout, hello.
The voice belonged to a small African American boy, around the age of 7 or 8. He was
happily munching on a bag of chips, while sitting on his front porch.
“Hi, is your mom or dad home?”, I asked.” “I’m the campaign manager for Jackie Glass, she’s running for Norfolk Public School Board and I would like a chance to chat with them.”
The boy scrunched up his nose, turned his head, and said, “What is a school board?” “What is an election, and who is Jackie Glass?”
I tried my best to answer all of his questions. I never ended up talking to his parents. I was ok with that because our conversation had gone so well.
Over an hour had passed since I arrived at this boy’s home. I glanced at my watch and realized I was supposed to be heading back to Jackie’s house.
A few minutes later, I arrived at Jackie’s house tired, but full of inspiration. The house was one of the biggest on the block. It had a huge wrap around front porch, and a bright green door.
Once inside, I set down my bag, grabbed a water, and met up with Jackie in the kitchen to discuss our latest canvassing efforts.
I was excited to tell her about my encounter with the little boy. It’s not every day that kids are interested in local politics.
“I had the best conversation this afternoon, and you’ll never guess who it was with,” I said.
“Who?” Jackie asked excitedly.
“The last house I went to I talked to this kid. He couldn’t have been more than 8 years old. I initially asked for his parents, but he ended up being super interested in the campaign and you. He asked so many intelligent questions, and was very articulate.”
“That’s great! I have to ask, was he by any chance a black kid?”
I was confused by this question, and not sure why it mattered, but I told her that he was.
Jackie took a deep breath and proceeded to tell me that to some people in the black community it was considered offensive to be called articulate.
I could feel shame, embarrassment, and anger wash over my body. My face started to feel hot, and my palms started to sweat. What was she talking about?! I meant it as a compliment. I never meant to insult this little boy or her community.
Jackie explained, “I picked you as my campaign manager because I know you can do the job. But, you have to be aware of what you say as a white woman in a predominantly black neighborhood.”
“Ok, I’m really sorry, I meant no harm. I was just impressed with this kid, I wanted to share.” I apologized. “Why is it an insult? I thought I was giving him a compliment.”
“Well, coming from a white person, it can seem like you’re surprised to hear something intelligent come from a black person,” she patiently explained.
I sat and listened. In shock. How could she be telling me all of this? I’d been working hard on this campaign and had only the best intentions.
This conversation was pivotal and lead to many more important like it between my friend Jackie and I.
This was the moment that eventually propelled us to launch our podcast called Your Neighborshood, where we had open, and often difficult conversations about race.