‘I’ve been expected to be a spokeswoman for every black person’


Cheryl Charles

When you’re a person of color in this country, you learn from an early age that you are considered “the other.” Your earliest memories become part of your narrative, your history and your psyche. Some of those memories are good ones. But there are other memories, shaped by going outside your homogeneous world and into the one where you are regarded with suspicion — and contempt.

I’m an African-American woman who grew up on Chicago’s south side. My neighborhood was mostly black, with a few interracial families. We lived in a planned neighborhood, one formed after decades of redlining had kept Negroes (as we were called in those days) from moving into nicer (whiter) areas even when we could afford them. Instead, Maple Park was built as a solid, working/middle class black neighborhood. The parents had good jobs as police officers, firefighters, postal workers, bank workers and teachers.

But venture outside the area, and you knew you would be regarded differently. We grew up knowing racism, and bigotry, experiencing its demoralizing pain.

My memory of my first vacation is two parents and three little girls, aged 10, 6, and 3, having to sleep in the car all across middle America because motels wouldn’t rent rooms to “colored people.” I knew, even at that young age, that some basic necessities were closed to me because I wasn’t white.

When my best friend turned 10, I went to the store with my family and my own money to buy her a birthday gift. As I wandered down the aisles of hair products looking for a nice bow or something for her beautiful long hair (I didn’t find anything I liked), I became aware of a scary white man following me. I met my father at the front of the store where he stood talking to a black security guard. This man and my father were friends and the man explained that if my father didn’t want me to, he didn’t have to ask me anything. I was puzzled. But the nice security guard said the scary man following me was a store detective and thought I had stolen something! Could he look in my purse?

I immediately opened my purse, which had precious little in it. I hadn’t bought anything, but I hadn’t stolen anything either. He immediately apologized, but I was demoralized by being treated as a criminal. Why? Because I was a kid, or because I was a black kid?

I’ve experienced bigotry in some form or another, microaggressions, condescension, bad service, no service, prejudice, all of my life. I’ve been expected to be a spokeswoman and/or apologist for every other black person on the planet (Why do they act like that? Why can’t they just comply? What do black people want?).

I’m not alone. I’m sure many people in minority groups are asked to speak for others they don’t know.  Why do we ask peaceful Muslims to denounce radical terrorists, but don’t expect whites to denounce and apologize for Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kaczynski, Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Dylann Roof, Ted Bundy, James Holmes, Adam Lanza, or the hundreds of other mass murderers who are also white?

The answer: Because people of color or of a minority religion are not considered individuals. We’re “those people” or “you people.” And if you’ve ever used those words and assigned stereotypes or characteristics to a group who doesn’t look, act, think, or speak as you do, then maybe you and I both should take a closer look in the mirror. Because, if I’m honest, I’ve used those words too.

Cheryl Charles is Night Editor at The Item. She can be reached at

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