By Shelby Simmons
Colleen did not like "the blacks" and had no problem admitting it. Every conversation with Colleen, our South African study-program host mother, was a history lesson. Kate and I listened patiently; we knew the routine. Grahamstown recently saw an increase in crime, Colleen says.
"It's the blacks. It's always the blacks," Colleen says.
Kate and I remained silent. We glanced at each other, unsure of how to respond. We did not want to condone her opinions, nor did we want to offend her. Our grandmotherly figure all of a sudden did not seem so warm.
Our professors on the South Africa study program told us that finding a white person in the country who was still openly racist would be next to impossible. My host mother in Grahamstown defied their expectations.
Colleen's pale skin hung off her small frame and the lines on her face seemed to tell the story of her life. Unlike our other host mothers on the trip, the widow allowed Kate and me to jump right in and help her prepare meals. No one seemed to mind the occasional collisions caused by the cramped layout of the kitchen. As Colleen diced the tomatoes with her back to us, she talked incessantly, and she rarely put her stories on pause long enough for us to interject a comment. Through her shaky voice and British accent, we soon learned the details of this former farm girl's life and the stories of her children and grandchildren, whose pictures were plastered on every wall of the modest townhouse.
Colleen enjoyed our company. She took us grocery shopping and to the post office, while she told us stories about nearly every building in her small town. We quickly warmed up to her stern features and serious demeanor. Her constant storytelling and her insistence that we make ourselves at home began to remind me of my own grandmother.
On the dinner table sat a pork roast and the salad Kate and I prepared. As we ate, we learned about the colors in each of Colleen's children's weddings. A rare pause in Colleen's monologue allowed us to jump in on the conversation. We worked up the nerve to probe her with more questions. "I'm racist to a point," she answered, without hesitation.
She and her late husband made it clear to their children that the children could never date a person of color. "A dove does not mate with a guinea foul," she says. Following each comment I had to double-check my face. I made sure that my eyebrows were not raised and that my eyes were not the size of grapefruits. I could not show her my astonishment or my judgment. Grandma Colleen instantly became Colleen the Racist.
I grew nervous around her. All of a sudden I didn't know what I should and should not say. I did not know how to act. Was is still okay to laugh at her endearing stories and offer to help with the dishes? She was the embodiment of the hatred and judgment I was always taught to scorn. Could such a hateful woman really be the same person who cooked beside us each night and spoke so lovingly of her family?
Each evening was the same as the night before. We cooked dinner together and gathered around the cluttered table to enjoy the fruits of our labor. Between bites, Colleen managed to tell stories about shooting snakes with a shotgun and traveling to Ireland to visit her son. We lingered over dessert and then helped clear the table until it was time for bed.
During daily group gatherings, our classmates were intrigued by our stories of the racist woman. They hounded us for details and could not wait to see what kind of comments each day would bring. Our class wanted to know more preposterous things that Colleen had said. I cannot blame them, really; Colleen was a rare find. But Kate and I ran out of things to say to them. They quickly lost interest in the snake story and did not really care about her children. We tried to tell them about her life on the farm and how she loved to talk, but the damage had been done. There was no convincing this group that the prejudiced woman was also a loving mother, grandmother and wife. To them, she was racist and nothing more, while I tried to reconcile the discord.
On our last night with Colleen we found ourselves in the kitchen yet again. Kate's spoon scraped the sides of the bowl she used to make the cornbread. I turned off the faucet and opened the stubborn refrigerator door in search of lettuce while Colleen steadily sliced raw chicken into thin strips. I began to wonder about the one-room bed- and-breakfast she ran out of her home.
"Colleen, what kind of people do you generally rent your room out to?" I asked.
"I'll rent to nearly anyone. College students mostly, or people in town on business," Colleen says.
Her rhythmic slicing didn't miss a beat.
"I generally like the company, although I hate having blacks in my house. They make me uncomfortable. Most of them are criminals, and all of them are more arrogant than you would ever imagine. They're just unpleasant," Colleen said.
I didn't respond. I was just hungry. So we sat and we ate and talked of other things.