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A little local color … in a Wonder-bread town

This column originally published in 2006.
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I keep getting asked to write less about national issues and more about local goings-on. Local “color” it’s called – stories that show the colorful characters, places and events of an area.

Believe me; I’ve been trying. Trekking it out to obscure cafés and trying to find a coffeehouse that isn’t Starbucks.

But Sarasota can be a pretty white-bread town, and the only thing I’ve discovered lately is that I’m not sure I’m white enough for it.

I mean, I’m white, I guess — if you can call this morgue-inspired pallor of mine white. But I’m beginning to think I must be finally copping a tan or something because
since moving to Sarasota, I’ve been asked more times than I can count — “What’s your background?” “Are you Spanish or Mexican?”

Now really, I’m so pale, I’ve had boyfriends who called me ‘Morticia.’ So, when I hear these questions, I always look around, like, ‘Who are they talking to?’

Until one day, not too long ago, a woman I barely know gave me a glimpse into the color consciousness that runs just beneath the surface for some folks in Sarasota.

It was a quasi-business thing; a few women gathered over tea at the Ritz. We were chatting about this and that, and when the subject turned to 9/11, I began telling a story about my experience that morning.

I was living in Boston at the time, just a stone’s throw from the new federal courthouse, just across the harbor from Logan airport. I sometimes ran (if you can call my lurching one foot in front of the other running) along the waterfront behind the courthouse and would watch the commuter boats pull in and the planes take off and land.

That morning, around 9:15, out running and completely unaware of what was going on in New York, I was suddenly confronted and stopped by an armed Federal Agent. He aggressively questioned me about who I was and what I was doing near the courthouse.

At this point in telling my story I paused, and when I did, one of my couture-covered tea companions leaned forward and said “With your coloring, I can see why.”

Alrighty then.

I was stopped because of my skin color? Apparently, I don’t just look Hispanic or Mexican; I now look like a Middle Eastern terrorist?

And here I thought I was stopped because I was running across federal property within minutes of an attack on American soil. Thanks for clarifying.
Shortly after this Ritz-y revelation, I attended a local meeting about segregation. During the discussion, the group, all white, kept referring to the black population in Sarasota as “those people” and “these people” or sometimes “the residents of Newtown.”

After about 20 minutes of this, I finally piped up. “What’s going on in this room,” I asked, “that no one is saying the words ‘black’ or ‘African American?’”

It was a bizzaro experience. We were supposed to be having a frank discussion about the problems that prejudice brings to the lives of people who are anything other than white. And yet the language being used was distancing, diminishing, and nearly segregative in itself.

Is the pathology of prejudice so deeply embedded in the bones of this city that we can’t even speak in terms that acknowledge and validate persons of color?

Most of my life, the color of my skin has been a veritable Visa card – allowing me to be accepted everywhere I wanted to go.

But here in Sarasota, where color consciousness exists in a kind of latent overdrive, I’ve had my first taste, no, not even that — I’ve had a scent — of what it must be like for a person of color – whether that color is black, brown, purple or spotted.

The truth is, like many native Floridians, I’m a mongrel; some unknowable mixture of bayou and bourgeois. Hell, for all I know, there might even be a little Florida Panther in the mix. I’ve certainly got the whiskers for it.

And, if my skin coloring or features make some people here in Sarasota wonder if I’m something other than white, well, that’s okay with me, too.

Because the way I see it, when it comes to color, we’re all just a pigment pile-up away from living in someone else’s skin.

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Posted on January 16th, 2009Comments RSS Feed
2 Responses to A little local color … in a Wonder-bread town
  1. […] Speaking of race, MC Coolidge posts a column today about how segregated Sarasota is. To me, this is the number one, most unexamined […]

    Reply
  2. I applaude Ms McCoolidge’s ability to discuss such aberrant behavior without losing her refreshing sense of humor while doing so.

    Reply

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