Recently, while driving down Stratford Road after shopping for groceries with my obligatory COVID-19 mask on, I suddenly felt like my heart was breaking and I started to cry. Surprised and confused, I started to think and pray, and quickly realized my sadness was over the senseless murder of George Floyd and the subsequent divisions, protests and violence that have erupted throughout our country in the last week.

I grew up in Greensboro in the 1950s and ’60s when schools were still segregated. As a white, middle class Southerner, I can honestly say that I don’t remember my parents or our friends and neighbors saying anything negative or derogatory about folks of other races. Obviously I’ve since learned that that was perhaps more of the exception than the rule. I always thought of my dad as a sort of Atticus Finch, a Southern lawyer who treated everyone with respect. I felt like I was raised to be “color blind,” to not judge people “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” to quote the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

For me, one of the most exciting parts of starting at Wake Forest University in 1972 was the opportunity to meet and go to school with people of other races. Sadly, there was still segregation for blacks and whites. In the school cafeteria, or The Pit, I observed the black students sitting together in their own chosen section. The black students joined the African American Society, the white females joined the Strings, Sophs, and Fideles and the white males joined the Greek fraternities. It was discouraging to me that we continued to be separate, but little old timid me was not going to be the one to rock the boat.

Fortunately, an amazing woman came to Wake Forest as a guest professor, and I got to be among the students that sat in a small classroom and listened to her stories. Often her lectures were about her book that I had just read called “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” I was mesmerized by this powerful woman named Maya Angelou but also heart-broken by the world of racism and evil that she revealed to me.

At one point during a time of discussion I said to her, “I feel guilty for being white.” She did not know my name, but she remembered my comment because I heard her quote me in later years. I remember the hope that she instilled in me that we, our country and the world, were on a path to come together as a people where the color of your skin no longer mattered. I came to understand that God made us all equal, and we are called to see and love each other for what is on the inside, regardless of race.

But somewhere we’ve been sidetracked. I don’t know the answers any more than I did back in that Wake Forest classroom listening to Maya Angelou. But that sadness and “guilt for being white” bubbled back up in me in a way I haven’t felt in decades. My heart is broken again. Maya, what went wrong?

Patti Petree is a resident of Winston-Salem.

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