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VIEWPOINT / SHERRY JOE : Black Newcomer Is Astonished by Goodwill

May 03, 1992|SHERRY JOE | Sherry Joe has been a reporter for the Ventura County Edition of The Times since last December. Her editors asked her to write about her experiences as a black reporter and as a newcomer in a county where blacks make up only 2% of the population

As a black female reporter in predominantly white, conservative Ventura County, I am not surprised by the racial insensitivity I sometimes encounter. But I am astonished by the genuine goodwill.

I have never encountered overt racism during my six-month stay in Ventura, only ignorance or insensitivity.

A popular small deli is near the Los Angeles Times Ventura office. One day, I decided to buy a bottle of orange juice. As I struggled to find my change, the proprietress, a middle-aged white woman from Georgia, asked me:

"What's the matter, can't you count? We ought to send you people back to Africa until you learn how to count."

The smug grin on her face seemed to be inviting me to share her humor. But I didn't. Unbelieving, I asked her to repeat the comment. She obliged, and I left without saying a word.

But she surprised me again later that week. After learning from my colleagues about the hurt she had caused, she called back to apologize.

My encounters with racial insensitivity have not been limited to whites. Because I speak Spanish proficiently, I am often sent to interview Spanish speakers. I always get a look of astonishment and relief when I ask my first question.

After the interview, I'm usually asked where I learned Spanish (at UC Berkeley), and how long I've been speaking it (eight years). The person then immediately wants to show me off as a black who speaks Spanish. During those moments, I feel like Exhibit A.

Yet, there are many times when I feel like just one of the crowd. During Santa Paula City Council meetings, officials and residents have gone out of their way to make me feel welcome.

The insensitivity I've experienced has been overshadowed by the absence of malice behind the words. Ventura County, like any other place, is full of good and bad people. The county should not be castigated for the decision of 12 people in the Rodney G. King case.

When sources call me to discuss stories, or when residents refer to me as "The L.A. Times lady," I know I'm being judged on my ability rather than race.

As I cover stories throughout the county, I am continually reminded of my skin color. But I also realize that no matter where I work or live, my race will affect how people react to me.

For example, people credit me with more knowledge than I deserve about so-called black issues. When I covered a Cal Lutheran University rally in response to the verdicts in the King case, many people assumed that I knew everything about the verdicts.

Well, I don't know everything about the King beating trial verdicts. What I do know is that the trial's legacy will affect us all, regardless of race.

I am continually surprised by comments and attitudes that seem to predate the civil rights movement. While covering a community forum on youth issues in Santa Paula, a young white girl used the word "colored" to refer to a schoolmate.

I'm sure the girl meant no harm, but the word bothered me because it is reminiscent of a time when blacks were expected to be subservient to whites. It connotes that blacks are a colored version of whites.

I prefer the current usages: African-American or black.

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