'You're disgusting' — Biracial military family welcomed to Kansas City with racist taunts

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Maureen and Jamari Roland and their family

Maureen and Jamari Roland and their family

It started as soon as her family, along with all of their belongings and their dog Kingston, arrived in Kansas City from Southern California not quite two months ago, Maureen Roland says: The smiles that froze and then disappeared when her new Northland neighbors, near Parkville, caught a glimpse of her Black husband and biracial children. The woman down the street who put her hand up and said, “No, thank you,” when Maureen introduced herself. The slurs shouted from across the way, the pointing, the pretending to retch.

“Kansas City nice” is real, but so is Kansas City not-so-nice. There are people in our town who yell, “You’re disgusting!” at the Rolands’ house as they walk by, and who have gotten out of line at the Best Buy to avoid them.

The Rolands have lived all over the world, so it’s not a revelation that there’s racism in it. But “I have not experienced it to this degree,” she says. “I have not experienced it this much. I have not experienced it this vocally.”

Her husband, Jamari Roland, is a 37-year-old U.S. Army veteran, originally from Los Angeles, who works for the State Department. A special agent to the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, he’s here for a year of training at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth.

As a law enforcement officer, you’d think he’d have been welcomed by all of the police officers and firefighters who live in the Northland. As someone who has served in Afghanistan and has kept our diplomats in Israel safe, you’d think the neighborhood would be throwing a socially-distanced parade.

Instead, Jamari says, “It’s been a unique situation for me. I went to school in Hollywood. Growing up in a diverse community, I’ve had people call me slurs. I’ve had teachers ask my friends why they were hanging out with me. But we got here, and it’s so out in the open. I don’t know if it’s a sign of the times, but to openly go up to someone or make sure they get your attention and acknowledge that they don’t agree with your family?” And all of this very much in front of their two toddlers. “Although they don’t know what the words mean, the expressions and body language are very clear: ‘What are you guys doing here?’ ’’ Jamari said.

‘Parenting in a hateful world’

Maureen Roland is 33 and from New Jersey, where Jamari was working when they met. At home full-time now with their 13-month-old son and 3-year-old daughter, she monitored State Department grants before they started their family. When they moved here, she thought she’d keep an online journal of their latest adventure, just as she had been doing, on the blog she calls “Rollin’ with the Rolands.”

Her last entry before leaving the L.A. suburb where they had been living said, “I arrived in California from overseas and very pregnant with Audrey. I knew no one and struggled to enter into motherhood without any friends. I joined a church, Gymboree, and started knocking on neighbors’ doors and from that I created a tribe of lifelong friendships that have guided me through both the toughest and happiest moments of early motherhood. I will miss those faces the most.”

Tribes take time, but so far, their only friends here are some folks they already knew. One woman down the street who has a dog her daughter adores has been lovely, they said, and the guy who lives behind them introduced himself. They are exceptions, though.

Maureen’s first blog entry after their move in early July is mostly upbeat, detailing their hot but fun trip to the zoo and first taste of Kansas City barbecue: “The bugs are big, the heat is in your face, and they definitely drive slower than I am used to, but I think we will really enjoy our time here. I love the area we live in, and every store I could possibly imagine is within 10 minutes of my house.”

Last week’s post, which got a lot more attention, and wound up being widely shared on social media, was headlined “Parenting in a hateful world.” I saw it because someone in my neighborhood posted a link to it along with this comment: “Do better, K.C.!”

“We’ve been in Kansas City for two months now,” she wrote, “and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t extremely disheartened with the welcome our family has received. I didn’t expect to have a neighborhood welcome committee when an interracial family moved into the suburbs of a Midwest city, but I absolutely didn’t expect the hatred we’ve experienced. … Jamari and I have traveled the world and experienced less hatred than in our own country.”

In an interview with the couple, as their daughter Audrey wandered in and out of the room with a popsicle, Maureen said that never having even visited the Midwest before, “I guess I didn’t know what to expect, but moving across country with small children during a pandemic, racism was the last thing I was really thinking of.”

That didn’t last long: On Day One, “the moving truck was there and it was kind of interesting because people would wave at me and say hi and then as soon as they would see my husband, their attitude would change. The neighborhood was not happy.”

‘Stay with your own kind’

One of the comments she’s since “overheard,” just as she was meant to, was, “He must be a rapper; that’s why she’s with him.” Another was aimed right at her head: “Stay with your own kind!” One day, “We were at Costco, in the parking lot, and a woman pointed at my husband. She was parked very close to us. She pointed at my husband, she pointed at me, she made a gesture like are you two together, and I smiled, I didn’t have my mask on yet, I smiled and nodded. I thought she was going to say something positive. She pointed at my daughter, who I was getting out of her carseat, and she gestured as if she was throwing up. And it’s things like that that my daughter sees.”

She finally wrote about all of this, she says, “because I’m sitting at my breakfast table and my kids are right there and a guy stops as he’s walking by.” A guy who has in the past shouted, “You’re disgusting” at her family.

“He was looking at the house with this disgusted look on his face. And I thought, I’m done. I’m so tired of worrying about going out in public with my gorgeous, peaceful family in my own community. So I wrote it in 30 minutes while I was really pissed off about the situation.”

No one wants to hear this is happening, not somewhere but here, not in the distant past, but in 2020. But shouldn’t we all be pissed off on this family’s behalf?

Isabel Wilkerson’s new best-seller, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” which explains how we got here — to Ferguson and Milwaukee and Kenosha and Kansas City — more clearly than any book I’ve ever read, describes how endogamy, or restricting marriage to people within the same caste, “was brutally enforced in the United States for the vast majority of its history and did the spade work for current ethnic divisions.”

The Rolands are trying to “buffer” their kids from that legacy, but they need our help.

‘They’re looking for my husband to be angry’

When confronted, they never react. “Could you imagine getting into a conversation or an argument with someone who felt vocal enough to come at my husband with the n-word?” Maureen asks. “That would go nowhere. They’re looking for my husband to be angry.”

Instead, she said, the Rolands focus on telling their daughter, “What that man yelled, that’s not OK to do. We don’t do that. He’d have a time-out for that if he lived here. We treat everyone nice. We’re teaching our children, ‘This is not the America that you will live in.’ ’’

Not because they’ll not always be in America, though that’s also true. But because, Maureen says, they want their kids to know that “you will not yell at people or dislike people because of race, religion or sexual orientation.” Or political orientation, Jamari adds.

“You’re either Republican or Democrat, Black or white, you like the place or you hate them,” he said. Only, those binaries don’t fit everyone, and “when you see someone, the first thing you see shouldn’t be race. It should be, ‘That’s a human,’ ’’ and worthy of respect.

Because Maureen can’t put an angry stranger in a time-out, she wants her neighbors to think about “hate being aimed at a toddler.” And yes, she thought twice and then three times before talking to me, because she does fear that things could get worse and even turn violent.

All of this flies straight into the mountain of how our city sees itself, and Maureen still wants to experience the Kansas City that much of the city sees when it looks in a mirror: “We never feel uncomfortable walking downtown, and I want to be clear: We like what we’ve seen of Kansas City outside of our immediate neighborhood. It seems like it’s family-friendly. It seems like there’s a lot to do. It seems like there’s great pride in the city. We say we’ve never been anywhere where they have more people wearing shirts with their own city’s name on it.”

It’s good to be proud of our city. And even better to make sure Kansas City lives up to all of that pride.

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©2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.