Josette Ciceron grew up in a tight-knit Haitian community in Florida. So when she and her family moved to Alexandria, which is 96 percent white, she suffered deep culture shock.
Ciceron, a writer, said she found herself getting stared at, followed around in stores by employees and even accosted by one woman who called her the "n-word" and told her the town was being ruined by people like Ciceron.
Being a minority is "really lonely," she said. "It feels like nobody will give a damn if something happens to you."
Ciceron said she has stopped eating in Alexandria restaurants. She even stopped leaving her home for a while. Then she met Preeti Yonjon, a Nepali immigrant and yoga teacher who was also struggling with being a minority here. Now the two have forged not just a friendship but a force.
They have started monthly Complexity Initiative Potlucks for people who are black, indigenous, of color or LGBTQIA+ and their allies. "Complexity" refers to the variety of identities every person has, such as being gay and black and elderly, or indigenous and moms and straight. They are also trying to find grant funding for a series of short films about race called "Voices."
On a recent Monday, 10 people shared food around a table in the basement of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Alexandria. Yonjon brought a Nepali dish called garam masala pilaf. Others brought salads and watermelon. Ciceron served a Haitian coleslaw so spicy it brought some to tears.
For an hour, the two hosts talked, while others asked questions and listened. Their white allies included a Spanish instructor, a psychologist, a couple retirees and a pair of Episcopal priests.
Ciceron filled them in on Haitian culture, the enduring pride over the successful slave rebellion that overthrew the European government, and the poverty and classism they still endure.
Four years ago, she and her husband Lanau left Florida and came to Alexandria, where his brother lives and they hoped to start a new life. They found jobs, but their experience hasn't proved easy.
She acknowledged that minorities aren't the only ones who experience difficulties moving to this area, and that, as a mom of two young children, she has met white moms who also have difficulty acclimating.
White people sometimes fight the idea that they enjoy privilege because of their skin color, but Ciceron explained that skin color privilege isn't limited to white people. In a community that was mostly black, her own skin color would provide her privilege not available to other races. But in this almost-all-white community, it too often counts against her.
One of her toughest moments came in 2016, she said, when her husband was returning to their Alexandria home after driving his brother to the VA clinic. Police officers pulled him over outside their home. Ciceron said that several squad cars blocked his car in, and officers handcuffed him and put him on the ground, and told him he fit the description of a man they were looking for, "a black man in a Cadillac."
While he was in their custody, she said, they received word that the man they were looking for had been located elsewhere, so they let her husband go.
It was a story she recounted in Definitive Woman magazine in 2018. Reached last week, Alexandria Police Chief Rick Wyffels said until that article ran, neither he nor his top-ranking officers had heard about that incident. He has been unable to locate any records about the incident, which would have been filed as a "use-of-force" form reviewed by a supervising sergeant, and no complaint has been lodged with the police department.
Wyffels said he wasn't discounting what happened to Lanau Ciceron, just that it was "highly improbable" that the Alexandria police were involved.
How to reach out
At the potluck, white attendees said they have sympathy for minorities but were unsure how to reach out to them. Someone wondered if they could invite minorities they run into at the grocery store to dinner. "Is that weird?"
Ciceron chuckled and agreed that it would feel pretty weird for a minority to be invited to dinner by a stranger, "But I'm willing to start somewhere."
Jon Koll said he wants to tell minorities he sees in public, "I'm glad you're here."
Ciceron and Yonjon both agreed they would like that, since so often it feels like they're not welcome. Koll said he looks for an opening to extend a welcome to minorities, especially if there's a natural interaction first, as with store clerks. He'll ask their country of origin and then tell them he's happy they're in the community.
Yonjon said that living as a minority is a surreal experience, because they find themselves either the center of attention or ignored. It can shake a person's self-confidence, she explained. There are times where people violate her space; one man grabbed her neck and shook her in a joking manner and said, "Have a good day, little girl," she said. She wears a nose ring, which in her culture indicates where she is from, but in Alexandria a man told her if it was bigger, he would pull her like a cow. She wasn't sure if it was meant as a joke, and if she should laugh.
Ciceron, too, said she gets touched by strangers, especially her long thick black hair. People compliment her on how well she speaks, implying that they expect her to speak poorly because of her appearance.
"It takes a toll on you," she said.
Both women said they did not see themselves staying long-term in Alexandria, simply because living here as a minority is so difficult.
How to help? Make a bigger effort to be welcoming without judgment, the two said. And come to their potlucks.
"We hope that more people will participate and bring constant inquiry, questions and experiences to the table," Yonjon said.
IF YOU GO
What: Complexity Initiative Potluck for indigenous, black, people of color, LGBTQIA+ and allies
When: Third Monday of the month. Next dates are July 15 and Aug. 19, from 5:30-7:30 p.m.
Where: Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Alexandria
More info: firstname.lastname@example.org