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The Little I Know (About Racism) I Learned From Leslie

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Although she tried to keep to herself, it was hard to miss Leslie. She was quite thin and although only thirty or so years old, walked with a cane. She was of above average height and unusually pretty. In fact, she said when guys would flirt with her on the New York City subways, sometimes they'd call her "Mona Lisa." The truth was that she more resembled a bronze Madonna than the Mona Lisa. But, in either case, despite the obvious stresses from which she was clearly suffering, it was difficult to take one's eyes off of her.

The cane was needed due to a bout of Lyme disease she was struggling with at the time, in addition to a number of other issues I would learn about later. But, a certain amount of her appeal was in the distinct vulnerability she exuded. It was probably just about every guy's impulse, either consciously or unconsciously, even if they only saw her walk by fleetingly, to protect her and insulate her from further distress. Leslie was just too much of a sweetheart to leave in harm's way.

I first noticed Leslie during services of a spiritual group in New York City in the 1990's. She attended about as much as I did, which would have been at one main service each Thursday, then each Monday at the home of a member who lived on the Upper West Side. My initial impression of Leslie was that she seemed to be a loner, so, I left it at that.

The group met pretty regularly and, eventually, we all became quite friendly. We also would periodically attend mini weekend retreats at someone's home in the country, where we'd get to know one another quite well. One such retreat I recall was in Princeton, New Jersey, at the home of a fellow who had recently received his bachelor's degree in Philosophy at Harvard, and who was currently working towards a PhD in Italian Literature at Columbia University. His father taught musical composition at Rutgers and his mother had just secured a position at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton University. Yes, he was a pretty interesting guy. In fact, he said he had never watched television until he was 35. But this was, believe it or not, for whatever reason, fairly typical for this particular spiritual group. I remember noticing at one point that the entire first row of the Thursday night meeting consisted mostly of people who either already had PhD's from Columbia, or were in process of getting them. I am not exaggerating here, and I'm not quite sure why this happened to be the case.

In any event, it was at one of these events where Leslie and I finally met. She wasn't attending Columbia, but it turned out that she was in the process of working towards her PhD in Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook (SUNY). Leslie was fond of stating that not only did this particular school have the best philosophy department in the country, but that she was about to become the first woman to attain that degree in the school's history.

She was living in Yonkers then and, like most people living in New York, was struggling to get along. We gradually became closer, and as we did, she began opening up more and more about the subject which was closest to her heart, possibly even more than her spiritual convictions, and that was racism.

I was in my thirties at this time, having been brought up in a very liberal Jewish family. So liberal, in fact, I had no bar mitzvah. My father loathed any kind of institutionalized religion and my own religious interest was to blossom later. But, although I thought I was fairly sensitive to 'the plight of blacks' in this country at the time, I had absolutely no idea of the extent to which this could so define and preoccupy such an extraordinarily intelligent young woman such as Leslie. I'm probably being overly cautious in calling her concern a "preoccupation", because this was a full-blown, daily in-your-face, out and out obsession for her. And neither of us really understood at first why, I was the first white person with whom she had ever shared these feelings with. As it turned out, we were falling in love.

Leslie was relatively light-skinned (even more so than Obama) and one of her parents was also (like Obama) completely white. But you would never take her to be white herself. And apparently, very few people ever did. The endless number of racial incidents that pretty much defined her daily, personal and professional existence, simply became overwhelming to both of us. Of course, for different reasons, at different times, and at different levels of severity.

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I really don't recall if at first I thought she was just exaggerating. But at some point, whether I said it or not, and despite (or perhaps because of) how despicable each recounted episode made white society appear, I honestly was thinking "Enough already!" But, this was her life, and I knew that if I wanted to be in any way a part of her life, I had to, in some way, come to grips with it...

So, let's start with SUNY. I had heard back then in the nineties that racism in academia was running rampant. But, I was really not prepared for this. As a PhD candidate, Leslie had to also teach courses. She told me that sometimes she would actually have to get drunk before entering the classroom, because the words "n-word b*tch, n-word c---" would be scrawled all over the blackboard.

She also told me that, at the time, a separate bulletin board had been set up which contained all of the noteworthy facts and achievements regarding SUNY students and/or faculty. But, although a famous black writer, who had recently won the Pulitzer Prize had enrolled at the school, there was no mention made of him on the display at all. In addition, it was just incredible how extremely difficult her "mentors and advisers" made it for Leslie to even function within the university. Many of the incidents were quite beyond the pale.

Then there were her just daily, city life experiences. She said it would not be unusual for her to be standing in line at a bank with a line at her left, another line to her right, and watch the clerks continue to call the first person from the lines on either side of her, on and on, (despite there being many white people waiting behind Leslie) without ever calling her. One particularly interesting incident happened at an ordinary but popular restaurant in midtown Manhattan. As we were sitting there I noticed her looking around while saying something to herself.

When I asked her what she was doing, she said she was counting the number of black people in the restaurant. After she mentioned it, I looked around myself and, sure enough, there wasn't a single one. Blacks make up about a quarter of the city's population, but it only then dawned on me that this was not at all unusual for New York. I, of course, would never have noticed this on my own. That really got me thinking. Was it because blacks just assumed some kind of racist treatment so why bother, even if they had never set foot inside before?

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But, what brought it all home to me in a way which I'll never forget, was a summer trip we took to New England together. First, was the roadside restaurant. It was rather early one morning and we were riding along some highway. We were very hungry and above us, on the right, was a huge billboard broadcasting "Fresh Orange Juice w/Farm Fresh Eggs," or something to that effect. The sign was enormous and inviting with the restaurant sitting right underneath it. So, we veered off the road and straight into the parking lot. I noticed someone standing behind the counter reading a newspaper, sprawled all over it. And, there was yet another sign, right behind the fellow's head, just like the sign by the road. The establishment was clearly open for business, so we walked up to the gentleman and said we'd like some orange juice and eggs. His eyes went slowly and silently from the paper to Leslie, to me, and back down to the paper again. He then said simply, "We don't have any" without ever looking up. I asked about the sign right behind his head. He just shrugged, eyes on his paper. It was apparent that he was not about to give it another thought.

Then, there was the pick-up truck that whizzed by us, with a man hollering out the window "Go home, n-word" while giving us the finger. There were numerous other incidents. But for now, I'll just end with these. Needless to say, all in all, Leslie eventually convinced me of the gravity and reality of the issue.

In the meantime, we had fallen quite in love. We even had this little shtick we'd do where I'd tell her I loved her more than she loved me, and she'd protest, "What are you talking about!? You couldn't possibly love me as much as I love you!!!" And I'd reply, "You don't know what you're talking about, there's no possible way you could love me more than I love you." And she'd reply... This could go on for days. But, for whatever reason (and I'm sure you will empathize they were probably many and complicated) yes, Leslie and I did eventually break up.

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