We typically live beneath the radar, two hours away from Washington DC. We are a vibrant city with great food, wonderful art and terrific places to hike and run. This past Saturday, we showed another side. When the Unite the Right Rally came to our town, we said, “No. We will not let you come to our city and bring your hate.” For me, it brought back memories of a time when I was just a child, and witnessed the devastating effects of racism.
Here is my true story.
Living our life in such an exotic locale was completely normal to me. We lived across from the beach, and at Christmas time we could play in the sparkling blue water. Sounds like the perfect vacation spot, right? It was - all of that and more. Recife, Brazil was and probably still is - a beautiful city filled with friendly people, great music and the smell of salty beach air.
Vacations for our family were always in Wisconsin. To my sister Morgan and I, Brazil was normal, and Wisconsin was the strange place. After living in a country filled with great beauty and extreme poverty, Morgan and I were always chomping at the bit to spend some time as a real American kid. Part of that wonderful experience was playing with American kids. Not American kids who lived overseas as we did – but actual cartoon watching, McDonald's Happy Meal eating, Halloween costume wearing AMERICAN kids.
When a family moved next to my Grandmother’s house, and there was a girl my age – Morgan and I were thrilled. Patti Shade was everything we hoped for in a friend. She was friendly, VERY American, and very active like we were. We played “Charlie’s Angels” and other little girl games with great joy and copious energy. Now Patti Shade (for some reason we never called her Patti – always “Patti Shade”) was a dynamo at games. We would run around the neighborhood with our dolls – playing “mommy” or “superhero” - feeling completely safe, happily experiencing everything we could before we had to go back to Brazil and our real lives.
One day, we took a small break from our energetic romping to sit on the front steps of my Grandma’s house and dress our dollies. We were gabbing in the typical fashion of young girls when suddenly we realized a man was coming towards us.
The only thing I remember about him was that he appeared to be really mad. His face was red, and we all seemed to realize at once that we might be in danger. He walked up to me (the tallest and therefore presumed the oldest) and asked me “why are you playing with that….?” And then he said a word I had never heard before, but I knew it was a bad word because it made Patti Shade cry. The red-faced man walked away shaking his head, and Patti Shade ran to her house – her sobs loudly echoing as her pink tennis shoes slapped on the pavement toward her home. My sister and I were at once upset that Patti Shade was crying and mad at the man for ruining a fun day for us.
We walked into the house and asked our mom, who was talking to her mother and sister in the kitchen, about the word that made Patti Shade cry. My mom's eyes were huge with shock when she asked how we learned that word. When we told her what happened, she explained to us, that some people don’t like or even hate other people because of the color of their skin. What a revelation! And a bad one at that. I was in a school in Brazil with a mini United Nations. We represented Egypt, Brazil, England, the United States, Japan, and other countries I no longer remember. The idea that someone wouldn't like the Egyptian boy, Iman, for the color of his skin was shocking to me. He was the most popular kid in our class!
My mom and then later that night my dad explained to both of us that the word that man used was a horrible word meant to show disrespect to Patti Shade because she was black. Morgan and I understood then why she had been so upset. That man was very mean – he didn’t even know Patti Shade! The next day, we went over, my sister and I, to talk to Patti Shade, but she was still too upset to play. Her brother told us that she would be fine tomorrow and she was. We continued to play and have fun the remainder of the time we were in Wisconsin.
I will never forget that day and how eye opening and disappointing it was for me - the world lost a lot of its magical qualities that day all because of one word.
Since that time, I think of Patti Shade often. I spoke to her once when we were in our young teens and she was running cross-country and still very much a powerhouse of a girl. I believe today she is somewhere in the world making positive change with her brand of humor and energy. Perhaps she now has a little girl who is playing with a little curly haired blonde girl and her baby sister. Every single young child should have the good fortune to meet and become friends with their own Patti Shade.
She changed my life.