I was covering the aftermath of a fire in Cicero, a township outside Chicago, with a reputation at the time for political corruption and a history of violence when it came to race relations to the point that civil rights organizations did not attempt to make a statement with a presence there.
I was there to report on the tragedy involving a family wiped out by a fire. Only a teenager survived. She was sitting alone on a step at the charred house, staring in the distance, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the destruction and the loss of her relatives.
I approached with my photographer, who respectively pointed the camera toward the ground. But then she stood and walked toward us and started to talk about her family and what had happened.
About five minutes into the emotional interview, she wiped her eyes and looked me straight in the eye and said matter-of-factly, “Gee. You’re really attractive… for a Black woman.” There was that moment of silence where you playback what you think you just heard. My photographer, Ed Kita, looked from around his lens at her, then at me. She was not being racist. She just said what came to mind. Odd. For sure. I was stuck between a laugh and a “Huh?” It was an opportunity to talk about the differences between people, even within cultures, like how people of all races can be attractive or not, tall or short, and not like each other because of all that. Most importantly, how people can fear people they have never been around or developed a relationship with enough to find common ground.
It made me think of trips across country every summer with my family in the RV, seeing the sights in places like Utah, Montana and South Dakota. There’s a facial expression I came to recognize on people like the girl from Cicero who have never seen a Black person in the flesh. At a pizza shop in South Dakota, it was so quiet, I asked the question, “Never seen anyone Black before?” The people nearby shook their heads, no. I asked, “You want to touch my skin and hair, right?” I laughed. They laughed. The ice was broken. And in Utah, I was all of 13 when I stopped at a camera store to buy film. Everyone froze. That was before the NBA Jazz franchise arrived.
By the time I became a reporter, those kinds of experiences allowed me to recognize that it makes our job a little easier and our reporting less biased if we can avoid preconceived notions and disarm fear of the unknown. It begins in the newsroom. If you strike up a conversation, you will find common ground.
It is important for reporters to cover stories about people and in neighborhoods that are not like their own, to experience another social, economic or cultural background. It is important to hear another way of thinking, a difference life experience. That is the only way to maintain integrity and authenticity in writing and reporting the news.
I am in touch with the next generation of reporters, and they are committed to walking in the shoes of others. They are brave enough to venture out of their comfort zone to tell the difficult stories and be a voice for people who need to be heard. They are anxious to explore and expose the ever-changing world by way of an ever-changing business.
It is my intention to help as many of them as I can skip over some of the hurdles I ran into and navigate through the necessary pitfalls so that they can thrive and make a difference. True journalists set out to change the world. The profession is still worthwhile.