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A letter to Iris on the anniversary of her death

Iris, you said I was colorblind. You said your husband was colorblind. I thought that was a good thing.

I put more thought into my aging skin than I did into the color of your skin. I enjoyed sharing life’s adventures with you. You were smarter and better-educated than I. You challenged me. When we met, I found you fascinating, intelligent, warm and friendly. Later I was drawn in by your bravery in fighting breast cancer, and a following class-action lawsuit in which you were the lead plaintiff.

You won!

We celebrated by going to the San Francisco Opera. That was the night we met Herb Caen. I was star-struck; you were so casual.

In 2010, my mother got sick, and my tenant gave me notice that she would be moving — both at the same time. My rental was in NorCal, Mother was in SoCal. How could I be in both places at the same time? You stepped in.

“Darling, you take care of your mother; I will take care of your house.” And you did. Even though you were suffering from the reoccurrence of cancer and walking with a cane, you hired contractors and got my house ready for the new tenant.

It has been said by some people of color: “If you are colorblind, you don’t see me, you don’t see my struggles, and you don’t want to talk about it.”

I wish I could ask you what you meant by saying your husband and I were colorblind. I wish I had asked you to tell me more about your struggles as a woman of color. All your undertakings were twice as difficult as mine. You called your daughter every day, as I called mine nearly every day. You feared for your daughter’s safety much more than I had to fear for my daughter’s safety. You panicked when you couldn’t reach your son by phone. You feared for his life when he went out into the world. My mother did not have to fear for my brother’s life when he went out into the world. You held a constant vigil for your son. You worried about who might hold that vigil when you died.

During our years of friendship, I was living in a bubble. I thought all people were equal. I thought racists lived in trailers far away and were called rednecks. I didn’t think educated people could possibly be racists. During one of the summers we spent in Ashland, we were sitting in Liquid Assets having a conversation about the political arena. Obama was running for president. You said, “No white person is going to vote for a black man when they get behind the curtain of a voting booth.” I said, “They sure will, and I will be the one to say, ‘I told you so!’ ”

And I was! I thought that with a black president, the race issue was over.

Remember the morning you were all in a tizzy because you had to find a new hairdresser? I said, “Go to my hairdresser.”

“No," you said. “I have to find someone who specializes in black hair.”

“What?” I said. “Hair is hair.”

“No,” you said. “It’s different.” I ended the discussion. Was I denying your uniqueness? Did I offend you by not having race conversations, by not recognizing our differences?

I’ve read that colorblindness is a form of racism. I wish you were here to talk about that. We spoke of so many things dear to our hearts: our daughters, grandbabies, mothers, men, our homes, communities and careers.

One night, while dining at a restaurant in San Francisco, you mentioned that because of your race, people stared at you in restaurants. My retort was, “Don’t be ridiculous! In this day and age? They are staring at you because you are knock-down gorgeous.”

I shut off race conversations. I was uncomfortable just thinking about having those conversations. You were my friend; I was afraid I would say something stupid and hurt your feelings. I realize that many things I did say, as well as things I left unsaid, were stupid. I didn’t know how to have that talk. Is that my white fragility?

I did not understand. Now I am trying to understand. I hear women of color talk about how when walking down the street, people cross the street to avoid them; how they fear for their sons; how they are followed in stores; how they are the last to be served in restaurants, how they have to work twice as hard in school and in the workplace. No one should have to live with those burdens, those spells cast on them because of racial differences.

Because of you, my dear friend, because of all my friends of color, and people of color who will become friends in the future, I am moving forward with race awareness. I am educating myself on race awareness. I am taking part in race awareness. Sometimes I make mistakes. I’ve most likely made some blunders in this article, but I will persevere so that our granddaughters will be able to have the talks and grow to understand and appreciate their differences.

Love you, Girlfriend!

— Pamela Dehnke is the innkeeper at Nightingales Inn in Ashland.