After reading about the Black Lives Matter protest outside the State Fair, my husband, John, put down the newspaper and sighed. “What do they want? I mean, what do they want from me? I don’t know how to respond to these protests.” I told him I too had no idea, but I knew someone I could ask. And he was at the State Fair.
For the first time in my life, I am an employee at the fair. You aren’t likely to see me, since I spend all of my time in the back of the food vendor, mixing up meatloaf, whipping cream and mashing potatoes. But on Friday night, I was assigned the dreaded dish duty. I did the scrubbing; alongside me was Trey, a 21-year-old African-American man who did the rinsing and the stacking. Now, when a person is standing for hours washing pan after greasy pan, there is not much else to do but talk. And talk we did. I learned that he is the father of two. He and his “baby mama” work hard at multiple jobs to support their family. I asked him why he didn’t marry. He just didn’t know. After learning that I had been married 34 years, he had lots of questions for me, trying to figure out how we had managed to stay together for so long. He told me of his mother’s death at a young age. I told him of our struggles with our son.
After we had exhausted most of our stories and at least some of the dishes, Trey said, “You know, you’re really cool, Marty.” I did not know quite how to respond to that. He continued: “Not many white women your age would even talk to a black man.” I was stunned. “Really?” “No,” he continued, “white women avoid us.” I then had to acknowledge, “Well, if I had seen you alone in a dark street, I would have avoided you.” There, I said it. And he agreed. Of course.
So, this is how I met Trey. Through a conversation. So, in order to find out what they really want from me, I decided to continue the conversation.
On Monday, I asked Trey to have lunch with me outside the food booth. I asked him, “My husband and I see the protests of Black Lives Matter, and the protests in Ferguson and elsewhere, and we want to know: What do you want?” He was silent, and then went into a kind of political discussion, like, “We want equality. We want human rights …” I stopped him. I told him I knew generally what the political movement was about, and that was important. “But,” I said, “Trey, what do you want? What do you want from me, a middle-aged white woman?” He said, “Marty, no white person has ever asked me this. You are asking me what I want?” He was dumbfounded. Finally, he said, “I want to be acknowledged. When you see me, say hi or at least smile when I smile at you. If I am carrying sacks of trash out of this restaurant, move over, in a polite fashion. Yes, that is it. We all just want to be acknowledged.”
I said, “So, am I exceptional, asking you these things?” He shook his head and laughed, “Oh, Marty, you are so exceptional. No white person has ever asked me to sit down with them and talk.” So although he laughed, the sadness came through. I was pleased, yet embarrassed to be thought of as exceptional just because I was having a conversation.
I am left wondering: If a middle-aged white woman could sit down over deep-fried corn fritters with a young black man, couldn’t the rest of us do this? What might happen if we had an intentional, organized effort to connect people one-on-one? Could we in fact use some of the time and energy spent organizing protests to instead organize and initiate these conversations?
Instead of shouting at each other over the Midway and cardboard signs, maybe we could truly learn, one conversation at a time, just what do they want from us.
Martha Wegner is a writer in St. Paul. Her book, “Dear David: Dealing with My Son’s Addiction One Letter at a Time” is due for publication this fall.