Has someone ever said something to you that just stunk? It was biased, close-minded, perhaps straight-up hateful. Where did you dump the feelings associated with it? Karen Zellars reflects on her formative years in Pittsburgh, where there is a continuing legacy of misrepresentation and mistreatment of Black Pittsburghers like herself. Karen challenged what the outside world was telling her she was capable of to find her place in the workforce and community.
Jourdan: Hey, you. Welcome back. It’s season three, and I am back as your host, Jourdan Hicks of the “From the Source” podcast. I am the community correspondent with PublicSource, and I am more than delighted to be back with you in your cars, in your kitchen, in your studio, in your office, through your headphones to bring you more stories from your Pittsburgh neighbors about the city that we live in, work in and share. In previous seasons of “From the Source,” we’ve had different themes. Our theme from the first season was life adjusting to a global health pandemic. The second season was about quality of life, and this season, drumroll please, is about the overcomers, the barrier breakers, the perseverers and the things that they know to be true from those experiences, from being the first, from overcoming the barriers to transcending difficult times, challenging times. In this episode of “From the Source,” you’ll meet Karen Zellars. Through conversation, questions and reflection, we’re going to walk alongside Karen as she unpacks her childhood memories from growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s in Pittsburgh, and how that informs what she knows to be true about living in Pittsburgh today. How it’s prepared her and how it’s challenged her into being the person she is today. This is Karen Zellars, and her truth is: you’re going to be uncomfortable, so get comfortable being uncomfortable.
Karen: It’s cool living in a Black neighborhood, because, especially when I came up, the Hill District was a lot different in the ‘70s. My mom and I could walk from our apartment — we lived across from the YMCA, it’s still there, Union Plaza Apartments — and we were able to walk up to Kirkpatrick and do some shopping. And so being around, you know, Black people, you got comfortable. When I was living in the Hill District as a kid, my aunt used to work at this place called, they used to call it Lay Elegua, but they called it also House of the Crossroads. And I was just thinking about her because she was always very outspoken, pro-Black, power to the people, and that’s kind of the family vibe I had. So some of those subliminal messages that were around the ‘70s and ‘80s kind of went over my head. I just don’t remember internalizing them to the point where I lost my identity.
Jourdan: Picture it. It’s like 1970s, 1980s, let’s say late 1970s. Stephanie Mills is on the radio, “Never Knew Love Like This Before.”
Stephanie Mills on the radio: I never knew love like this before.
Jourdan: You’re living your best middle school life, middle-school dreams. And then your parents drop the bomb on you that you’re going to be moving to a new neighborhood, with new friends, new neighbors, new school and your neighborhood is predominantly a race that you are not.
Karen: You learn hard truths about how people feel about you. And so it was uncomfortable, but I was able to find bits of comfort in that uncomfortable environment.
Jourdan: And, you know, in a perfect world, the race thing wouldn’t matter. Everyone would embrace the fact that race has no scientific basis. It was made up. It was made up for profit, which is a whole ‘nother story. But to Karen, in middle school, it was a huge deal to move from the Hill District to the Point Breeze area into a predominantly white neighborhood, into a predominantly white school.
Karen: To find your place of comfort, you kind of have to be uncomfortable. Does that make sense? How could I put it? I guess there are certain cities where you live in a Black community, right, and that’s kind of your world to a certain degree. You know, your neighbors are Black or, you know, your neighbors are Latinx , but there’s always people of color around you. So that’s kind of where you’re comfortable. But in Pittsburgh, you can’t really be like that. We don’t have that level of diversity where you can be just amongst people that look like you.
Jourdan: Karen says that that fact of having a little bit of diversity, not enough diversity, a lack of tolerance for difference, led to a lot of discomfort, a lot of discomfort in her early stages of life. And when you’re a Black child figuring all that out in Pittsburgh, that adds another layer of stress to your existence. You’re already trying to fit in. You’re already managing crazy emotions because you’re growing up under the pressure of society at that time. Who are your friends? To be like them, to look like them, to fit in. And then here comes adults, with their opinions and their close-mindedness, making you even more uncomfortable. Showing you that you’re not enough. Treating you, doing things to you that intentionally are done to make you feel different. And not the good kind of different, the bad kind of different. You may not be able to identify with the experience of a young Black child, but go back into the recesses of your mind. Do a quick audit of any childhood, early childhood experiences that have stayed with you that were impactful, that weren’t necessarily positive, that were critical of who you were, that were centering your worthiness as a person. And just sit with those feelings. How did you internalize other people’s so-called truths about who you are, who you were at that time? And how did it make you feel?
Jourdan: And Karen, if you could go back for a moment, do you remember how that made you feel as a young child? Do you remember any truths that, to you, became apparent about yourself or your environment, or what it meant for you to be in an environment that didn’t necessarily fit you, that you had to squeeze into?
Karen: Yeah. So I’m an only child, so I always kind of felt like a loner to begin with. I think I was more or less probably more hurt by the lack of acceptance. With the Black students, I was too white. With the white students, I was too Black. I’m kind of going to veer off, well not veer off,, but just to give you a little bit of background. One of the interesting things about Pittsburgh, of course, is the dialect, the Pittsburghese. My father’s family is from the South, so of course, they weren’t raised using the dialect. My mom’s family’s from Pittsburgh, and they weren’t raised using that dialect. So I’m in school and I’m speaking quote unquote proper English,” which had a certain level of uppityness to some of the Black students. So I was shunned by them, not only for the economic thing of being a neighborhood kid, but also by the way I talked. And then with the white students, of course, you know, they were fine with the way I talked, but they just weren’t fine with the color of my skin. So it hurt because there was nowhere where I was enough. I can’t change the color of my skin, and I’m not going to change the way I speak just to be accepted
Jourdan: In those moments where you felt isolated and those moments that you felt not a part of a group or community, what did you need to hear? What did you need someone to say to you? What would you have liked someone to say or show up for you in that way back then?
Karen: Probably that things will get better. That this moment that you’re experiencing, these three years at Linden that you’re experiencing, will fade away in the background. That it is not going to last forever. And that you’re enough. The color of your skin, the texture of your hair, your complexion is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s nothing to run from. It should be embraced and accepted and loved basically. That you’re a unique individual. My mother did tell me that. She’d say, you know, “There’s no one else like you.” And like, OK, that’s good to know. But to have that reinforced, saying you are enough. That you have just as much right to stand in your space as anyone has to stand in theirs. That would have been helpful.
Jourdan: I’m thinking about my own experience. I was lucky to be raised in a Black church spiritual tradition, where it was normal for people to look like me, to talk like me, to be related to me, to have known people in my family who I had never had a chance to meet. There was a sense of lineage and family and tradition. And so when I went into these predominantly white spaces, like it was like, “Oh, like, I know it’s different.” I felt, like you said, I could see that I didn’t fit in with some of the Black kids because of really the anti-Black rhetoric that I had soaked up going into those spaces, right? And I knew that there were some white kids that I didn’t connect with because I didn’t connect with them, and I didn’t know why I didn’t connect with them. But the jewels and the gems and the seeds that my parents and my family and my community planted in me eventually took root, and I was able to notice stems and leaves and flowers blooming like, “Oh, okay, so this is why they said it, and this is why it’s relevant to my life now. I can pull from this garden when I need to to reaffirm my soul, to bring myself back to center when things are kind of shaky and throwing messages that contradict what I know to be true about myself.”
Karen: Well, you know, it was interesting that you said that because, you know, my parents had — and we talked about this before — but my parents had different experiences with race. My father raised himself. So in the ‘40s and the ‘50s, you know, he had a lot of formative years dealing with segregation in a way that I don’t think Pittsburgh can deal with segregation. My mom and her siblings, born and raised in Pittsburgh. She said, “We went to the store.” They lived in the Hill District, raised in the Hill District. “Oh, we went to the store. It was owned by Jewish people and we had Italian people.” So they have more of a mixture. I don’t think she experienced racism the way my father experienced it. But again, for me, I experienced things and I just didn’t share. I don’t know. Maybe I just didn’t want to burden them? Maybe I just felt it was something I could handle myself. But their experiences were quite different, so I don’t even know they would have handled the information that I gave them differently. They told me it would be something. I remember them telling me it would be something I would experience, but I don’t recall them actually saying “If this were to happen to you, or if someone says this to you, do this or say this, or ignore it.” I don’t quite recall that. So the warning was there, but not much follow up.
Jourdan: While you were speaking, I was thinking, “Wow, what would it look like if we were able to tell the rot-gut honest truth about what it means to be, you know, insert the identities that you hold, in the workforce, in education, in school, in Pittsburgh.” What if we actually said, “OK, now when you come here, these are the things you’re going to experience. This is why. When you hear this.”
Karen: Well, you know what? They’re trying to do that. But you know, you can tell people. And I think that was funny. There was one faculty member, or someone that we dealt with in our department, and he happened to live in Point Breeze. And we were all sitting at the meeting, and I was talking about, you know, how Point Breeze to me had become segregated. “Oh, well, no, Point Breeze is a wonderful community.” And I’m sitting there like “For you, white man, maybe.” But for me as a Black woman, no, not so much. I think it’s interesting. You could tell people what Pittsburgh is like, and then you always have the group of people, they’ll give them the converse. Well, Pittsburgh is a wonderful town. We were named most livable city. And as Black people say, Pittsburgh? Livable? For whom? Who have you talked to, or are you just pulling out data from, you know, statistical reports saying, “OK, well, they had less crime in this area than other cities, so more livable.” I think there is a push because, you know, you have the diversity thing. At Pitt, we had a diversity training last year. I’m on the diversity and inclusion committee in my department. And there is a push to get that information out, to share with others what is like, what the experience is like being a Black person in Pittsburgh, being a Black woman in Pittsburgh. But the other person has to be willing to receive it. And I think that’s where the breakdown comes, where I could tell you everything about my life. But if someone is saying, “I just don’t believe it because I didn’t experience that,” then you’re going to have that disconnect. And they’re never really going to be able to absorb what you’re saying because they’ve already built that wall that says, “Because I didn’t experience it, it must not be true.” How do you break through that wall? And there is a bigger push for that now. There wasn’t so much when I was coming up. You know, it was funny. I was looking at this meme. Not really a meme, but it was a comment, that woman who was attacked by the alligator. You’ve probably seen, and it was just like a few days ago. And someone made a comment said, “If that alligator was a Black man, it would have been shot.” The painful part of that is it’s true. That, as a Black person compared to an animal, animals sometimes get a lot more grace than we do as people of color. But if I were to say that to someone who was white, they may not get it or may not accept it, or be like “You’re just playing the race card.” And I’m like, “How can I be playing the race card when you’re holding the deck?”
Jourdan: And my thing is always like, if these are all of our experiences, one of y’all had to be in the room where stuff went down. Like all of y’all just can’t be absolved. Somebody was in the room. Somebody said it. Somebody heard it.
Karen: And you know, and it’s true. But the question is, did they hear it or were they listening? I think what happens is I think people feel guilty. I think they don’t want to look at themselves as a perpetrator. I hate to use that word “perpetrator” because that’s really heavy, but as someone who is part of the problem, not part of the solution. And they don’t want to be saddled with that burden, which is why you get the, “Oh well, slavery happened so long ago.” Yes. But guess what? There were various forms. It may not be that, but there are extensions of slavery that are still going on to this day with the type of policing, with the type of criminalizing of Black children, that go on to this day that has its roots in slavery. Some people just can’t make that connection. They don’t want to. As a Black person in Pittsburgh, I mean, you kind of grew up, you know, you go to other cities and you look around, you’re like, “Wow.” I mean, you know, I often wonder what I would be like as a person, what would I be doing as a person? Would I have achieved more if I had left Pittsburgh? If I had moved to Atlanta or New York City? Would I have more opportunities? How much has Pittsburgh stifled me as a person? How much has it stifled my growth as a person, both professionally and personally and emotionally? I had a sociology teacher who told me, “You need to leave Pittsburgh.” I was like, “Why?” He’s like “Because-” And he was white. He’s like “You won’t be able to grow here. Pittsburgh is not a place for growth, especially for Black people.” And that was probably in the ‘90s, when I should have listened to and left. But I stayed. I had reasons to stay. Now I see there is kind of an exodus of Black people out of Pittsburgh for greener pastures elsewhere. So who knows what I could have been?
Jourdan: That was really deep, Karen. I mean, I’m in the same boat right now. Thirty years old. I spent some time out of the country, said, “Wow, America, the ghetto.” And then returned.
Jourdan: Out of obligation. But then you start to wonder like, “Wow, am I recreating these boundaries and chains and barriers to developing myself, to realizing myself, based on where I stay? And in 2021, that shouldn’t be the case for anybody. Not where you stay, not where you live.
Jourdan: You know, as you’re talking, I’m thinking about what is kind of my framework was for entering into this conversation with you. And thank you because you have been super honest, super vulnerable. Like I know your family, your dad, your mom, where you are from, the church ya’ll went to, the pasta that you like. I wish for my sake, for the sake of the future of Black people in Pittsburgh and even in the past, I wish there was somewhere where white people could take their questions, their bias, their misunderstandings, their hate, their laziness to understand other people and other cultures, somewhere else. Somewhere at work, somewhere at school, somewhere downtown while y’all building all these condos. I try, where I can be, to be compassionate and to understand. I see that, for us to really get to a space where we can really live our best lives among each other and everybody have the most opportunity and maximize the opportunities and possibilities that could be in the city, I wish there was somewhere where that guy who yelled those obscenities at you when you were a child attending school and they seen you, I wish there was somewhere they could take that. And I’m not talking about no KKK meeting, where people are like, “Yeah, we feel the same way.” Like, I need there to be spaces where white people handle they scandal, so that we could thrive and not have to internalize so much. Not have to contextualize so much. Not have to adjust so much. Not have to move away so far from our families. Not have to relinquish our lease on the city, relinquish really like the promise, the benefits, the rewards of living in Pittsburgh.
Karen: Yeah, that’s a really interesting statement because the first thing I thought of was there is, they do that at home. You have to acknowledge that is what it is to begin with. I don’t want anyone to misunderstand me. I’m not, I know it’s going to sound cliche, but I am not a racist person. I’m not. I have a lot of white friends and associates and people that I’m just cool with. Butt people have to acknowledge that they have racial biases, or biases of any kind, in order to actually have a place to put them. If it’s part of your upbringing, if it’s part of your home life, if it’s accepted by those closest to you, then it’s part of your norm. And how do you parse out that? What would have to happen to someone to have them acknowledge that calling someone the N-word for no reason, or calling a child the N-word for no reason simply because they’re playing in the play yard at their own school, what would have to happen for that person to realize that that was wrong? If it’s reinforced at home, if it’s accepted at home, and by acceptance I mean not so much someone said, “Yeah, you’re absolutely right, that was OK to call that little seven-year-old girl the N-word.” But silence is acceptance. So even if you have people around you that aren’t saying what they feel or how what you said is wrong, that there’s still a level of acceptance. So, you know, if you go home and you have family that’s OK with that kind of language or reinforces those beliefs, how do you parse that out and say, “You know what? This is wrong.” What trigger would there have to be? And even if there was a trigger, would you even be willing to acknowledge the trigger? To say, “Hey, you know what? That was really wrong. I shouldn’t have done that.” Or feel guilty about it. And the people don’t want to feel guilty about anything. People have a hard time apologizing just for simple things, much less something that caused emotional pain to someone, that made someone, you know, have to go home and say, “You know, this guy called me that word.” People were telling me something, you know, to have your parents explain what that is and that people are not going to like you because of the color of your skin. Never said much about gender. But everyone has biases. It’s just what you do with that. So my bias, and like I said people in Pittsburgh are really going to hate this, but I’m so very sorry it’s just me, I don’t like the Pittsburghese accent. I just don’t.
Jourdan: It’s not universal,
Karen: And I don’t think people really got, why I said this? You don’t really hear it in the Black community. You may hear some variations of it. Maybe people say “sliberty” or “sammiches,” but you don’t hear it in the Black community that much. So if I go somewhere and they’re like, “Are you a Yinzer?” I’m like, “No, I’m not.” So that’s my bias. But I remember telling someone years ago, and probably I’ve said it multiple times, you know, there was this whole movement back — I don’t know if it still goes on, it might still go on, maybe not so much now — but back in the ‘90s, early 2000s, maybe even to mid-2000s, where a lot of people were like, “Well, I’m colorblind. I don’t see color. I don’t see color.” I’m like, “That’s nice. I see color everywhere.” And I’m like,I think that’s a cop out. I do personally believe that when I hear someone saying that, I think that’s a cop out. It’s a cop out because I am a Black woman. I will not be anything but a Black woman. I can change my gender, but I can’t change the color of my skin, and I wouldn’t change the color of my skin. There is nothing wrong with seeing me as a Black woman. The question is, what do you do with that information? Do you use it as just a piece of information, or do you use it to hold me back and to put me down and to keep me down? I think that’s where people get hung up. OK, I’m Black, I’m a female. OK, that’s just a piece of information. But if you take that and you twist that, and you use that against me to keep me from getting a job, to keep me from buying a house, that’s when it becomes detrimental. And that’s what I have a big problem with. If you can’t see me for everything that I am — Black woman, Pitt graduate, a person who was raised in Pittsburgh, a person has these experiences as a Black person in Pittsburgh — if you can’t see me, then how can you understand me? If you can’t understand me, how can you respect me?
Jourdan: And I think for me, I’m like, it’s OK that you see that I’m Black. That’s fine. But what does the skin represent to you? What does the color represent to you? What labels, attributes, attitudes, emotions are you assigning to me? And then once you get past that and you check yourself, then we can proceed. But there has to be a reckoning with what’s going on in your head, in your mind. And it’s really interesting what you said earlier, like Pittsburgh has no common cause. What if we made the common cause in Pittsburgh equity for real, like for real?
Karen: Yeah. You know what? I don’t think, and I hate to say this this way, I don’t think that’ll ever happen in this city. And I don’t mean to squash ideas. But this city is odd because the city so wants to be antebellum South, it forgets it’s above the Mason-Dixon line.
Jourdan: Oh my goodness, Karen.
Karen: I don’t mean to say it that way. But this city has this weird kind of southern-root vibe to it, I don’t know, Confederate-flag feel to it. I don’t think that the city could ever really grapple, and ever really deal with the lack of equity and how do we level the playing field, because you have that undercurrent of, well this city is mostly white, we want the city to remain white. You know, there’s that antebellum south kind of mentality that I think permeates everywhere throughout the city, and that is a brick wall that the city has a very hard time breaking, you know, getting through. Because I think once you get through that wall, then you can address the issues of inequity. But that wall is thick. The wall is generations. And the city doesn’t have a good influx of immigrants. You know, I go to DC, and I’ve been to quite a few places, I’ve been to DC, Chicago and some other big cities. And there is such a blend of people, even though they may not be living next to each other, it’s such a blend of people that you just don’t see here as much. I’m wondering if it’s a geographical thing or if it’s a historical context thing that keeps people from wanting to have this city become more diverse. Pittsburgh is friendly, but Pittsburgh is not welcoming. And I think that is something that will always be Pittsburgh’s setback.
Jourdan: Karen requested that this message be shared at the conclusion of this episode. Thank you again for the opportunity to share my experiences as a Black woman raised and living in Pittsburgh. One thing that I want to make very clear in the podcast is that I don’t dislike white people, but I dislike the way I was made to feel about myself by some white people because of the color of my skin. I love having a broad breadth of friends and family members of all races, ethnicities and religions whom I love as they love me. Completely and as they are. I just want that bit of information to be known and understood. Karen Zellars.
Jourdan: This podcast was produced by Jourdan Hicks and Andy Kubis and edited by Halle Stockton. If you’re curious to learn how you could share your story with us or appear on an episode of “From the Source,” you can get in touch with me. Send me an email at Jourdan@PublicSource.org. PublicSource is an independent nonprofit newsroom in Pittsburgh. You can find all of our reporting and storytelling at publicsource.org. I’m Jourdan Hicks. Stay safe and be well.
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