Talking with a 'racist'

Speaking with Cathy Salustri

click to enlarge ROUNDTABLE: Cathy Salustri, sitting at the head of the table, explains her controversial article to the Tampa Bay Association of Black Journalists. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
ROUNDTABLE: Cathy Salustri, sitting at the head of the table, explains her controversial article to the Tampa Bay Association of Black Journalists.

In the end, her mind still wasn't changed. But you can't blame the Tampa Bay Association of Black Journalists for trying.

At the last meeting of TBABJ, Cathy Salustri faced 10 inquisitive area black journalists attempting to understand what the Gulfport Gabber writer meant when she wrote an article declaring her neighborhood was turning her into a racist.

"I'm a white woman living in a black neighborhood," Salustri's lede began in the May 10 front-page article for the 15,000-circulation Pinellas County weekly, "and I'm turning into a racist because of it."

A post to CL's quoted from the article, generating a wide range of responses. Subsequently, St. Petersburg Times media columnist and TBABJ chapter head Eric Deggans invited Salustri to their monthly meeting.

"I think when we hear things about race, we don't want to talk about it," Deggans said as his reason for inviting Salustri. "I thought it might help Cathy to hear from some black journalists in the area to help her with her writing and life."

So, over a lunch of diversified vegetables at the Carrollwood Sweet Tomatoes restaurant, Salustri described her devolution from a tolerant liberal to a frightened victim of the crime-ridden Bartlett Park neighborhood in St. Pete. Now, after a stolen scooter, pilfered ladder and some off-color comments from Bartlett Park hoodlums, Salustri feels she cannot look at black people the same again.

"I come and see all of you as journalists first," Salustri told the table of black journalists from the Times, Tampa Tribune and two public relations firms. "But if I saw you on my street, I don't know if I would. ... I'm beginning to lose the ability to see anything that is not black and white."

To her credit, Salustri said she isn't proud of her newfound racism. And she's not as much concerned about her own attitudes as she is about the positive comments she has received since the article was published.

"I was surprised [that] most of my white friends weren't bothered by what I wrote," she said. "I think what I feel is more of a problem for black people than the freaky racists walking around."

And though the black journalists kept their cool — no arguments and only a few raised eyebrows — most of them didn't know quite what to make of Salustri.

"One thing I find fascinating is I don't think you're a racist," Ken Knight of the Tribune told a shaky-voiced Salustri. "If you were such a racist, you wouldn't worry about this so much."

Much more disturbing, the black journalists agreed, was some white people's tendency to make generalizations about African-American life based on what occurs in troubled neighborhoods.

"I wouldn't want to live in that neighborhood," countered Keisha Pickett, CEO of Pickett Public Relations Group. "That's not hating my people, I just don't want my car broken into."

But above all, there was surprise that a 32-year-old journalist could be so naïve.

"I would think as a journalist you would be curious about people and be able to differentiate between socioeconomic status and blaming a whole race," said Nicole Hutcheson of the Times' Clearwater bureau. "As a liberal, I would've expected you to seek it out — not just for your stories, but for you personally."

Where did all this leave Salustri?

"I think everybody there wanted to come away with something better," she said after the meeting. "I don't think one experience can change anybody's mind about anything. ... I still have to fight myself from making generalizations."

In the meantime, Salustri is attempting to sell her Bartlett Park home.

"That's more about the city, not about living around black people," she clarified. "I'm not sure how long I want to wait for the city to get behind this neighborhood."

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