"These hands are symbolic of our Higher Power and our faith therein. They represent the intrinsic value and the significance of our struggles in all forms of injustices through racism. Through these hands we were able to perservere and stand steadfast in the midst of the storm. Without these hands we would be rendered helpless. We will continue to pray with these hands to guide us in the right direction for solutions, for strength, power, and the courage to overcome racism in America."

This story is about a dear friend of mine who experienced one of the worst days of her life; her name is Dr. Arvenia Cheri Swan.

Cheri grew up in Center Moriches and graduated from Center Moriches High school. From there she moved and lived in Manhattan. She moved back to Long Island in 1993. Since that time she obtained her doctorate in Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing from Stony Brook University. She has her own private practice and also employed at Stony Brook University Hospital as a psychiatric nursing practitioner. She currently lives in Coram. She has one daughter, Barrett, who lives in Philadelphia.

Cheri has two recent stories. They occurred in April 2018, three days apart. I asked her what happened. How did it make you feel? What was going through your mind?  This is her first story.

Cheri said that she was on the way home:

“It’s cold out and after seeing clients at my office I am happy to go home and have my coffee. I stop in the local gas station on Route 112 which has the cheapest gas. Love this place! While you have to pump your own and it is cold outside now it’s worth it: $2.77 per gallon for 93 Octane. I pull up at the pump, lock the car and with my $25 in hand enter the store/station. I was ready to say “25 on number 4.” A white man comes in behind me and as we approach the counter another man is finishing up his purchase. We both stand there waiting. I

Dr. Arvenia Cheri Swan

notice the cashier. He is a slight, white older gentleman with salt and pepper hair and glasses. He looks worn. Probably a smoker I think to myself. After he finishes up with the man ahead of me, I step to the counter, but I notice he is doing something with the cash drawer. He is counting money which he has removed. I really don’t think anything of it. The man who was behind me now says, “She was ahead of me.” The cashier proceeds to take the white man’s money and in one motion gives him his change. I look at him in disbelief as the reality sinks in that I was just dismissed in favor of a white man whose turn it was not. I was next in line. I think I must have had a pained look on my face because that is what I was feeling, and as I turn on my heels and walk out, the cashier says, “Oh, Ma’am, I did not mean anything by it!” As if that statement absolved him of his blatant disregard and behavior. Like I was supposed to shuffle up to the counter and say, ‘Aw, that’s alright Massa.’ I left and bought gas on the next block.

“How do you do that? Am I not worth the courtesy of my rightful place in the store because I am black? Why do you feel you have the right to easily dismiss me? Who do you think you are? More importantly, who do you think I am not? This has happened before. It has happened to most people of color when dealing with merchants. Either you are ignored or followed in stores. At the grocery store, no extra cashiers open when you are last on line, but as soon as a white person gets behind you another register becomes available. You can wait, but they cannot.

“I asked her about the next incident which occurred three days later. This is Cheri’s next story. Cheri said that she had just left a pleasant session of mind-numbing, relaxing shopping after a long day’s work.

“It’s my reward — looking through the racks, singing with the canned music in the store. It was time to go after a few not-needed clothing purchases. I get in the car and am now singing to myself. Life is good. Middle Country Road is crowded as it is near the mall. Seems like I must have waited five minutes in order to enter the traffic stream.

“As soon as I make the right going east, the traffic has already stopped after a few hundred feet or so. Who cares? I’m still singing, and life is still good. On my right, as I was before, I notice a woman trying to make a right turn to also enter the traffic. I slow down to let her in. She nods in thanks and I pull up behind her.

“As I do, a white man in a black SUV behind her juts out almost cutting me off. I slowly pull up because he’s rude and aggressive. He continues to move up causing me to stop short because he almost hits me with his car and forces me to let him in the traffic. I give him a big smile, which clearly names him the idiot he is. I just smile at him as he makes his way ahead of me and into the left lane. He then yells out of the window, to me as I continue to flash my grin, and with my windows shut I hear him as he looks at me and yells plainly, ‘You stupid, f–ing nigger bitch!’ I keep with my wide grin because no matter how it hurts, he will never know. Of course, I am not letting him know it hurt because he is not right. I am confident and secure in who I am. But I am hurt for what this country is and who we are. I am hurt that I have to live here and suffer both overt aggressions and micro aggressions each day which affect my health and well-being. I am upset that my pulse is quickening and now my head is pounding and I can’t stop it.

“You know, it’s okay to have disagreements in traffic. Who hasn’t had them? But tonight this is not about traffic, rudeness or someone absentmindedly cutting another off. That I could forgive because we have all been guilty. However tonight is not about poor driving habits; it is about racism. Why do I have to be called the vilest of names? Not only being attacked for my sex, but my color. Everyone knows the connotations of a ‘black bitch.’

“Pondering this on the way home, I can only think about the fact that we know there has been an uptick in hate crimes across the country in the past 2 years. It has now become acceptable to hate, and engage name calling and bullying. This man felt emboldened to speak those words perhaps maybe a few years ago would only be spoken in the home or at other gatherings.

“I just don’t get the hate. That is the most troubling. If you let it, it will destroy you; but not me. I was the only black child in a white school for six years in Manorville, South Manor School District. Unfortunately, my family home was just across the line so that is where I went. I recall everyone in my class being invited to a birthday party except me. I recall going over to a friend’s house and after that her father coming down to the school to make sure his daughter did not play with the ‘nigger’ so he made her eat lunch in the car every day.

“I always wanted to do my best. At work, I have been told, ‘You are intimidating; you have a large vocabulary.’ (I finished the sentence: ‘You mean for a black woman?’) There is just something about you …

“Today I have a doctorate degree. I am Dr. Swan in a lot of circles, but unfortunately not in a lot of others,” she said.

Cheri and I agreed that white and black people in America live in two parallel worlds, side by side; however our experiences are totally different. I asked her: “Where do we go from here?”

“What I try to do to effect change is I realize how strong institutional racism is here, right now,” she said. “So I attempt to effect change where I can — largely in my community on a personal basis in my practice helping people of color. They need someone more than ever now because of the depression and anxiety. I see it in my practice,” she said.

Lastly, we talked about how white people view these articles. We both agreed that these articles are not meant to slander, slight, or undermine them. We both emphatically agreed that these articles are to reflect feelings of racism. We live in two different worlds, where white people live in a bubble and have no idea of the effects of racism that it plays out in our everyday world. They are clueless to the hurtful feelings that we have endured for hundreds of years.

I ran into an educator who I had not seen in a very long time. We hugged and chatted for a minute and she complimented me on the articles and said, “We need you.” My response was “We need each other.”

For the record I welcome the opportunity to sit down and interview any white person who would like give me their views on racism in America.

We need your help.
Now more than ever, the survival of quality local journalism depends on your support. Our community faces unprecedented economic disruption, and the future of many small businesses are under threat, including our own. It takes time and resources to provide this service. We are a small family-owned operation, and we will do everything in our power to keep it going. But today more than ever before, we will depend on your support to continue. Support RiverheadLOCAL today. You rely on us to stay informed and we depend on you to make our work possible.

SHARE
Avatar
Lawrence Street is an educator and an advocate for education reform focusing on children with special needs. He has taught in Riverhead and New York City and held education administration positions in the U.S. Virgin Islands. A native of Riverhead, he has always been a proponent for social justice and community awareness.