I really thought we in Knoxville were making progress on this racism thing. But Sunday was a wake-up call about how far we still have to go. I have to admit I am disappointed and a little depressed.
It started with the Sunday News Sentinel.
There was a prominent article about two local debutante balls – one produced by the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the oldest African American women’s organization in the country, and the Dogwood Ball produced by the East Tennessee Presentation Society. Held on the same night in March, one featured all African-American young women and the other featured all white women.
There was one big difference. Rosalyn Tillman, presentation chair of this year’s AKA Ball (and also the dean of Pellissippi State’s Magnolia Avenue campus, by the way), told the reporter that being African American is not a requirement for a young woman to be considered to be one of the AKA debs.
But, regarding the Dogwood debs, was this paragraph quoting Anne Trent, chairman of the board of the East Tennessee Presentation Society: “While there is no application process — the Dogwood Ball is by invitation only — there are at least three criteria young women must meet to be considered: they must be sophomores in college and unmarried. They also must be white. Trent says she does not see a problem with the event being segregated.”
That was the position at Cherokee Country Club when the University of Tennessee’s first African-American basketball coach, Wade Houston, was informed by the athletics director that the customary membership that came with his position was “not an option” in his case. And that’s what all the civic clubs in Knoxville said — 30 years ago — when I did a story about their membership policies for the now-defunct Knoxville Journal.
Folks, it’s 2015. Even stuffy old Cherokee Country Club has changed its policy. And the civic clubs opened up shortly after the story ran. This debutante thing is embarrassing. Not only is it wrong and shortchanges the debs themselves by not giving them the opportunity to get to know a diverse group of women, but it looks awful to anyone from outside our community who may be considering moving here or even bringing a business here.
If the morning newspaper article were not bad enough yesterday, things hit a lot closer to home later in the day. Alan and I had purchased four seats at a charity fundraiser in a lovely West Knoxville home featuring a couple of hours of hors d’oeuvres, wine and live music from a racially diverse band. We invited our friends Phyllis and Jim Nichols to go with us. Phyllis is the president and CEO of the Knoxville Area Urban League and Jim is a successful Realtor in West Knoxville. They are African American.
No sooner had the four of us gotten our wine and settled into a couch and chairs around the coffee table than an older woman approached us and introduced herself. We did the same, making amiable chit-chat. Then, unbelievably, she asked Jim what he played. Jim was a little puzzled and didn’t immediately answer. So she made a motion imitating a trombone player and said, “You know, what instrument do you play?” Only then did it become apparent to us that she had assumed that Jim was one of the musicians hired for the evening rather than an invited guest. I jumped in and explained that Jim was our guest and, after a little bit of awkward small talk, she moved on. Jim chuckled and shrugged it off, but I was stunned. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a musician, of course, but why would anyone assume that any African-American man in the room must surely be one? I mean, nobody assumed Alan was there as a performer rather than a guest.
To make matters worse, as everyone was leaving, another woman asked Jim, “Are you one of the musicians?” And she’d been watching the musicians perform for an hour! I guess it’s the “all black people look alike” phenomenon.
Before heading home, we asked the Nichols to join us for a drink at a restaurant because I wanted to see how Jim really felt about what happened.
He seemed disheartened rather than upset. “It’s just normal,” he said. “I’ve been in places where people ask me to bring them a cocktail, assuming I’m a waiter.” Again, there’s nothing wrong with being a server, but for folks to automatically assume it is another thing. While Jim was standing outside a local country club after an event recently, someone handed him their valet ticket, thinking he was there to go get their car.
“It is racism,” Jim allowed. “People just assume. People who say that racism is in the past and that color doesn’t matter — they are white people. They are oblivious to it. The people who made those comments tonight — and the society we live in — don’t even know that what they are saying is offensive.”
Looking back on the two hours we were there, I realized that the only two comments anyone made to Jim the entire evening were based on the assumption that he was part of the entertainment. No one even asked him what he did for a living. They just assumed.
Sunday was an unwelcome reality check.