Don't judge a mountain by its curves or a woman by her gray hairs.
This weekend was a wonderful yet eye-opening reminder of how preconceived biases and stereotypes exist within "me."
Our trip to Buckhorn, for the wedding of my nephew Eric Wilkerson to Sophie Deaton (daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Deaton of Frankfort), became a little stressful as we began to travel through the mountains of eastern Kentucky. Our car's navigation decided to take us through the longest stretch of narrow, cliff-dropping road that either of us had ever traveled. As we kept going, the movie "Deliverance" started flashing in our minds and we literally started praying, "Lord, please don't let the car have trouble or either of us need to go to the bathroom."
I kept waiting to see a rebel flag or a burning cross or someone standing in the road with a shotgun, anything to reinforce the fears, stereotypes and biases I had developed in my head.
Later that evening after we arrived safely at the lodge, we struck up a conversation with a young man who worked there. He shared how he had lived in this area all his life, and in his mountain dialect described the beauty of this place, while offering tidbits about his family and job, and warning where to watch for copperheads and occasional bears. When he walked away we both looked at each other and said, "I didn't sense anything negative from him ... did you?" Nope, just a really nice young man.
Saturday we attended a stunningly beautiful wedding service at the Morris Fork Church and returned to the lodge for the reception. Matt and I got there earlier than the other Wilkersons and had gotten a table for the rest. I was the only black person there with the exception of a young girl. Matt had gone to the restroom, so for a few moments I sat at the table alone.
Across the room I saw a gray-haired, older Caucasian woman, and as I watched, she deliberately made eye contact and started walking toward me. As she approached I remember thinking, "I wonder why she is coming this way?"
Well, she walked right up to me with a warm smile, took my hand in hers and said, "Hello, my name is Ollie Turner. I'm Sophie’s great-aunt." I introduced myself and she began to thank me for coming. She asked me if I had ever been up to the mountains before and proudly shared a few things about the area and tried to explain to me where her house was located.
We talked about our gray hair and how we forget things, but most importantly she told me how happy she was that I was there — and then she went on about her way.
Now this was special to me for many reasons, but mostly because this woman made a conscious decision to make me feel welcomed and included. Earlier that day some of us had been talking about race issues and how people of a certain age and era would likely never change. I made that comment, yes, but at some point it becomes a choice to hold certain views.
Some people, it seems, choose not to change, and though Ollie was a person of that age, she chose to be kind and inclusive to me in that moment. She didn't have to get up and come over to talk to me, yet she chose to leave the company of family and friends and extend herself to me. If “the me” of one day earlier had placed money on that happening from just looking at Ollie, I would likely have lost.
If I had allowed my preconceived notions, stereotypes and biases to take root in my mind and heart without making a choice to put them in check, I would never have heard the young man who supports his family of four on $10 an hour and gets laid off in the winter say, "Where could I go and work at a place as pretty as this?"
If I had chosen to ignore the truth and feed on my own biases, I may never have felt the gentle touch of Ollie's hand in mine. Had I not chosen to be open to new things, people and places, I may have deprived myself of witnessing and experiencing some much-needed demonstrations of deliberate acts of kindness in this sometimes not so kind world.
Vanessa Wilkerson lives in Chesterfield, Virginia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.