VOA web editor Sandra Lemaire at her desk in the newsroom
VOA web editor Sandra Lemaire at her desk in the newsroom.

Editor's note: Protests against systemic racism have riveted the United States and caused many Americans to reflect on the legacy of slavery. At Voice of America, black journalists are sharing personal stories and their views on the national conversation.

The worldwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis as well as the killings of other young African Americans brought back vivid memories of my agonizing encounters with racism.   

In the 1990s, I was assigned to report on a local festival in Lafayette, Louisiana. At the time I was a radio reporter for VOA Creole, broadcasting to Haiti. Creole is one of the native languages of Haiti. The other is French.   

Among the people my colleague Carol Pearson and I met backstage was a woman who owned a prominent radio station in town. She introduced herself after noticing that reporters from Voice of America were covering the event. She offered the use of her studios to produce and edit our radio stories. It was a generous offer, delivered to Carol (who is white).  

I was ignored.

The radio station owner (who was also white) turned her back to me as she addressed Carol. I was stunned. Was she really being rude or was I imagining things? 

From Haiti

My family immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s from Haiti, the first black independent republic in the world. Haitian slaves revolted and defeated the French troops of Napoleon Bonaparte to win their independence in 1804.     

My father, Jacques Lemaire, was a famous journalist. He moved us to the United States because he was sickened by the ruthless targeting of the press by Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. His friends had been shot dead in their newsrooms for reporting on stories that the dictator considered a threat to his power. My father told me being forced to read a communique on air about his colleagues, which described them as traitors — when he had barely digested the fact that they had been gunned down mercilessly — had been too much to bear; he had to get out.

We left a country where we were in the majority to make a life in one where we were in the minority. My parents’ motto was always: Put your best foot forward, work hard, follow the rules and reach for the stars. You can do whatever you set your mind to.

I grew up hearing stories about the dangers of journalism under the Duvalier regime. At a very young age I realized that press freedom was something to be cherished. Reporting was a noble profession. My father was passionate about it. He had integrity. He was a great storyteller. So it’s no surprise I chose this profession for myself.

I love reporting. The event in Lafayette, a two-hour drive from New Orleans, is one of the types of events I was sometimes sent to report on. Their Creole Festival was right up my alley. There were opportunities to do interviews with the locals in Creole, because the Cajuns speak a language that is similar enough to Haitian Creole for me and our audience to understand. There was also a big show featuring jazz great Ellis Marsalis and his son Wynton. He agreed to a backstage interview — I was thrilled.

I couldn’t wait to report back to my father, who was a huge jazz fan. It was after the Marsalis interview that Carol and I met the station owner.

Ignored

Carol brought me into the conversation, telling the woman that I also was a reporter for the Voice of America. The woman ignored me just the same, and addressed only Carol.

Then it dawned on me that maybe she was ignoring me because I’m black. I had no value in her eyes. It was sobering, humiliating, heartbreaking — I did my best to keep my composure. I thanked her for the generous offer. She pretended not to hear me.  

I don’t speak English with an accent; I speak like an American. I was well-dressed. I am articulate. How I presented myself could not possibly be the reason for her behavior.  Did she dislike me? We’d just met.

Carol, who will always hold a special place in my heart for her actions on that day, held the woman accountable. She brought me into the conversation politely and relentlessly, telling the woman that I was a reporter for VOA’s Creole service, broadcasting to Haiti, and that I spoke Creole and French. It was only then that the woman shifted and began treating me like a human being. Only then did she see me. To my disappointment it was not because she felt ashamed of her actions. It was only because she perceived me to be a foreigner, not a black American.

Maybe Carol’s kindness shamed her a little, too. I’ll never know for sure.  Carol insisted that the woman make her studios available to both of us. Eventually, she agreed. In the end, we decided not to take her up on the offer because we were so disheartened by her behavior.

A secret

On our way back to the hotel, Carol told me she couldn’t believe the woman’s actions. It made me feel a little better and I was grateful and felt fortunate to be working with a colleague who didn’t just accept the injustice. She took action. There were no mobile phones back then to capture the conversation, no social media sites to bring the injustice to the attention of the world. It would remain among the three of us and whomever we chose to tell about it. Our secret.

Most of my close friends have never heard this story. I  shared it only with my family. Experiences of racism are like a dark secret we store away in a faraway place where the stinging humiliation can’t reach us. Sharing these stories, saying them out loud, brings back that soul-crushing feeling that takes a while to subside. That’s why we don’t talk about it.

The following day, I went into town for some frozen yogurt. I was the only person in the store until three white teenagers arrived. As I tried to decide which flavor I wanted, the teens called out their order.

“Hey! I was here first," I told them. “It’s my turn to order.”

They looked at me incredulously as if to say, “How dare you?” I proceeded to order anyway. The server, who seemed a bit confused by what was happening, filled my order first.

The encounters in Lafayette are experiences I’ll never forget. It was a harsh lesson in that, in the eyes of some Americans, all men and women are not created equal. The Constitution tells us that we are.

A sickening feeling

The feeling of being judged only by the color of your skin is excruciating. It is sickening. It is humiliating. It is wrong.  

As I work on stories about the protesters who are taking to the streets in the United States and around the world to demand justice and police reform, I realize they are also seeking respect.

That respect is what some Americans enjoy every day and maybe even take for granted. There’s a Creole proverb that says, “The rock in the sun doesn’t know the pain of the rock in the water.”

You don’t know what you don’t know.    

Know this: There are those of us — naturalized Americans and U.S.-born citizens — who still dream that one day we, too, will enjoy that respect without having to fight for it.