What I learned about racism from my cop father and tortured grandfather
BY KERI JORDAN-LEANDER
Fourteen years ago, I moved from Philly to NY after being presented with an amazing job opportunity that I hadn't encountered at home. If I am truthful, I'd dreamed about living in NYC since I was a teenager. And traveling up here with my older sister during that period and visiting Soho, Washington Square Park, West Village, and Fort Greene left an indelible impression on me.
Determined to live in the city. I quickly decided to move into a sublet arrangement in Hell's Kitchen. Since then, I've lived on three different blocks in the area and have loved them all, but each came with their own experiences. I was immediately drawn to this neighborhood because it had character, grit, numerous stores/restaurants, was beautiful, and seemed to be welcoming (which was important, being a Black woman who also identified as queer). And, while the vast majority of my interactions and exchanges here have been pleasant, some have not.
Even before the current state of racial turmoil and injustice was ignited, I encountered a few unfortunate experiences of my own in my neighborhood. After moving into my first apartment, I was “mistaken” for both a cleaning person and delivery person. While each are important professions in their own right, the assumptions made about me specifically were problematic: these are examples of latent bias, perhaps even slightly baked racism, as people of color, especially Black people, are commonly seen to only provide service to others or ONLY be in positions of servitude. Each experience was both hurtful and eye-opening. However, neither affected me as much as my most recent confrontation.
One morning, while my wife and I were walking down 9th Ave, I was called the “N” word by a man passing us. I was stunned as it was my first time in such a racially charged situation, layered with the fact that I NEVER thought I would encounter that behavior in my own neighborhood. I tend to think that the man was not a resident of the area, but I am also not disillusioned and realize I can be subjected to this behavior anywhere.
Growing up in Philly in the 70s/80s was a mixed bag of excitement, fun, turmoil, and hard truths. My family would have likely been considered middle class, as my father was a cop in PPD (Philadelphia Police Department) and my mother was a longtime manager at Bell Telephone (now known as Verizon). We (my older sister and I) grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood in East Mount Airy, but spent most of our time in West Mount Airy, as we used our grandmother’s address to attend a magnet elementary school in that area. The neighborhood was extremely diverse: a middle/upper middle class area, consisting of many Black, White, and interracial families. Many were very liberal in their views and very accepting of each other.
As a child, I was aware of race and differences, but at home and school, these differences were embraced. I have biracial cousins and grew up freely befriending kids who had varied ethnic backgrounds. Race, disparity, and inequality were discussed openly in my family as a whole. With my dad being a police officer in the 60s/70s, during the height of a racist regime in Philly (Frank Rizzo was mayor at the time, but had also been the Police Commissioner prior to that), he experienced an unprecedented amount of racism. My mother once shared a story about their first apartment being ransacked by the police, because they thought my dad was a member of the Black Panther Party. I was appalled that one’s employer could execute such a heinous act and not be held accountable.
It seemed my dad always tried to hold space to be a Black man who was also a police officer. When he had the ability to, he did not participate or work events that demeaned or devalued Black lives. For instance, he refused to work the day the bomb was dropped on the MOVE organization for Black liberation in Philly, in 1985.
I was also told the story about my grandfather working at a steel mill for many years and being subjected to his white co-workers rallying and pouring hot metal on him, scorching his legs and causing third degree burns. He was relegated to wearing pants for the rest of his life due to embarrassment, and the fact that he never wanted to rehash the horror of that experience.
In contrast to those stories, my family was also calculated in providing positive, uplifting examples and stories of strength and resilience. My great-great-great grandfather was Lewis Adams, a former slave and one of the original founders of Tuskegee University in Alabama. Reading about his hard work, resilience, and determination during that period in history was nothing short of amazing.
I was also lucky enough to have grown up with my great grandmother sharing stories about her life: being born in the 1890s, migrating from South Carolina to Philadelphia, and becoming a nurse. I was privileged to hear about her strength and tenacity over the years, until she passed away at the ripe age of 105.
Because of my lineage, I have always felt it necessary to stand up to and fight against injustice. I have taken part in many protests over the years and know that, in order for true change to occur, in most cases it has to be demanded. There is strength in numbers and varied backgrounds. People of color need allies to also stand firm and refute and blatantly oppose the brutality, hostility, and lack of respect for Black lives that has been occurring in this country for centuries.
Holding police, politicians, citizens, and companies accountable for their actions is key to progress being made. I would implore everyone (especially those who are not people of color) to get involved in this movement of change. Most recently, I attended the Black Lives Matter rally on Sunday June 6, to hear their suggestions regarding law enforcement reform policies. But it’s also important to provide a few additional outlets and ways in which you can become involved, more enlightened, and/or donate to the cause:
I hope you are able to find inner strength to now be the ancestor to future generations that took a stand and fought for equality.
Keri is an accounting manager who lives in Hell’s Kitchen, New York. She loves baking and runs a business called Abstract Tart, which had a stand at the Ninth Avenue International Food Festival. She was also resident baker at Kahve coffee shops.
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