Marthaellen Florence had been called n----- before.
“Oh, please,” she said when I asked. “Absolutely.”
Florence lives in Lincoln. She’s worked at Nebraska Educational Telecommunications for 38 years and is now its director of community engagement.
This story is about the last time that word was directed at her, and how the strong black woman stood it down.
Florence called it another “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up” story when she shared what happened to her last week on Facebook.
She agreed to share it here for one reason: “Maybe it’s educationally worthy to encourage people to be allies and advocates.”
It was a Friday night. And she was pushing a shopping cart through a big box store. Several children ran through the aisles unattended, and when Florence turned down a new aisle, she saw a boy standing there.
“He saw me and this look of fear came over his face,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “He started running away from where he was playing, yelling over and over at the top of his lungs, 'Mommy, Mommy … there's a n----- in here.'"
He was a little boy, Florence said later. Maybe 3 or 4. He looked at her, she said, “as if he had seen the most scary monster ever.”
There’s more to this story, but let us pause, my fellow white people, for that to sink in: A child in the middle of America in 2016 is screaming the most horrifying, history-laden racial epithet at a black woman shopping for groceries.
The child was white.
Never will I experience a moment like that because of the shade of my skin. When I read about it on Florence’s Facebook page, I felt sick at heart -- shocked and ashamed that this happened in my hometown.
It didn’t shock her.
“In my world, it’s always been part of my reality. You grow a pretty thick skin.”
It’s not just the N-word. Or “Black B----.”
There are the subtle slights. The looks. The questions about her hair or skin, as if she is a curiosity to be studied.
And the more overt instances, like the time she asked a saleswoman to hold a pair of shoes while she went looking for a purse to match only to return to find the shoes gone.
“Oh, you people never come back,” the clerk told her when she asked what happened.
But here’s the thing, people. Florence is not a victim. She doesn’t need, want or desire pity.
The 59-year-old grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, and small-town Illinois before she moved to Lincoln for college.
She was raised to be strong and confident.
“Our family was full of affirmations. It was encouragement, over and over.”
She was raised to give back to her community. And the giving list is long: Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor’s Commission on the Status of People of Color, Malone Community Center, Lincoln City Libraries, Jazz in June, Omaha Empowerment Network Leadership Team, and on and on.
Before Florence left the store and her groceries behind that Friday night, the little boy’s father appeared and began to apologize. I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.
Florence put her hand up, motioning him to stop.
"He had to learn it from somewhere," she told him.
Then she abandoned her cart and left the store.
She thought about what her mom always told her: “If you ever find yourself in the wrong story, leave.”
And this was the wrong story.
But she shared it with a hope: That those of us who will never hear those words hurled our way will step up and help write a new story.
We’re not born racists, but all of us, people of every color, learn prejudice.
Maybe you’ve never uttered the N-word. But if you automatically assume a black man (or black boy) must have done something to deserve to be shot by police -- that racism doesn’t exist in our institutions -- or never questioned the racial disparities in arrests and sentencing rates, or assumed a black woman at a school works in the lunchroom instead of the classroom, or feared a black teen in a hoodie more than a white one, you, like me, have something to work on.
And something to stand up to when you see it or hear it.
“Don’t be silent,” Florence said. “People need to step up to the plate. You’re not defending people of color -- you’re defending what is right.”
It’s not about being politically correct. It’s about being humanly correct.
It’s about recognizing racism is real and what we say and do -- what we see and hear -- matters. And what our children see and hear in their homes and on their television screens and in their schools -- the implicit and the overt -- matters.
“Parents, be mindful that little ears are always listening,” Florence wrote on Facebook that night. “And you are responsible for building the foundation of who your children will be as adults.”
The black woman in the grocery store has a strong foundation and a child parroting the hateful speech of adults didn’t shake it.
Although she did think this: What year are we in?