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When I Wake Up

Published on 8/8/2016
Carol Davis ponders the two paths she must navigate as a successful female professional who is also black.

I am a retired executive and a co-president of the League of Women Voters of Orange County, and I know many state and community leaders, but each morning when I wake up, one of the first things I do is to acknowledge that I am black.

When I drive down the street, I look for the hidden police officer who might stop me for a broken headlight. I know to keep my mouth shut and accept the ticket, whether I think it is justified or not. I learned very young how to live in a world where I am profiled and stereotyped.

I grew up as a Southerner in Georgia. My neighborhood was filled with friends and relatives. The traditions and rituals of the community gave me comfort and safety. My parents trained me to stay away from places where I was not wanted, and when I ventured out of my "colored world," I used my best manners and spoke or nodded only to people I knew. I never drank the water from the colored fountains or used the colored bathrooms.

One day in 1966, after integration became law, I was on my way home from Atlanta and saw a billboard that offered delicious Southern food to travelers. I insisted to my mother that we stop and have lunch. She pleaded with me to wait until we got home. I kept insisting until she stopped. I walked inside, and I was met with angry faces and a waitress who quickly informed me that I had to go around to the back, and she would hand me my food. I walked out stunned, and my mother and I drove home in silence. It was then that I realized that I lived in two different worlds, and I needed to learn how to navigate them.

My husband, Charles Davis, and I were introduced to the "White World" through the military. He was an Army officer who spent 20 years in service, two of them in Vietnam. We lived on bases in integrated neighborhoods, and my children's playmates were black, brown, white and other racial combinations. Before I met and married Charles, my only dream was to live in Atlanta in a nice black neighborhood.

Life did change, and in some ways, the "Black and White Worlds" have come closer together. But sadly they remain far apart in others.

Like my mother, I had to comfort my children and help them learn how to navigate our worlds. We had the conversation about how to respond when stopped by the police. They were told to keep their mouths shut and accept the ticket. I had hoped they would never have to learn these lessons.

When unarmed black people are killed by police officers and police officers are killed while on duty, we are reminded that there are good and bad people of all races. Some people forget that police officers are black, brown and white. These are not the all-white police forces of the 1950s and 1960s. Police officers are also navigating their way through two worlds.

Their deaths are not the solution to racial problems. I grieve for the lives of police officers the same as I do for the lives of black victims of police misconduct.

I still live in two worlds, but I have learned many lessons. At Duquesne and Boston universities, I learned that I could compete academically. At Harcourt Brace publishing company, I learned that most people respected my knowledge and skills, and I retired as a director in the Elementary Mathematics Department. As a member of my sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, and the Congress of Black Women, I enjoy being with "my people" and discussing the problems of today from the black perspective.

As a member of the League of Women Voters of Orange County, I have learned that equality and fairness are worth fighting for. I feel accepted and am proud to be co-president, representing an organization whose founders dedicated their lives to fighting for equality and winning the vote for women.

My husband, Charles, is also a member of the League of Women Voters, and we have worked together for more than five years to register voters. This is a passion for us in remembrance of our ancestors, who could not vote.

In the future when people of color wake up in the morning, they will still acknowledge their race, but they shouldn't have to carry the heavy burden of inequality. We need to come together as a community and discuss issues that affect us all.

Carol Davis is co-president of the League of Women Voters of Orange County.