“She’s Black, she’s Black, she’s BLAAAAACK!” was just about all my brain could handle. Maintaining a simple and polite conversation was barely possible. No matter how much we had in common, no matter how likely a future friendship, I could think of nothing but that amazing dark skin, the transcendent hair texture, and my entire personal history of race relationships. Oh, how I wanted to prove to this woman that I was not like just any white woman! I knew, of course, it was just this level of self-consciousness that would make me utterly annoying to her. But, I just couldn’t help myself.
Helping myself, though, is really what race relations is about for me these days. I do care about the greater socio-political issues (shocking disregard for people’s lives all across the continent of Africa, overt brutality in our country, job discrimination, and of course the list goes on). However, my personal journey with racism now centers around me, my husband, and most of all, my daughter.
When I sat for coffee with the “she’s black she’s black she’s BLACK” woman, I was reminded of a time in college in the late 80’s when a fellow student raged at me something like, “I am not all black people! I can’t solve your problems!” The disgust, the tears, and the absolute giving up I felt from her did change me. I was so ignorant, so inexperienced with people who were not white-upper-class-and-highly-educated that I lumped anyone unlike me into a group. This group, I thought, would be my source for how to fix the world. Surely, they knew what I could do to not be like a bigot, a racist, a slave owner.
It was then I began to try and get over myself. Trouble was, I just didn’t have anyone to practice being just a person with. There was no one in my life I could intentionally not discuss race relations and curing the world of injustice. There was no one in my life with darker skin, or fancier hair. There wasn’t even anyone I knew whose family had struggled financially, dark or fair skinned. And, yes, I recognized how this desire to not look to someone for all the answers was just a different side of the same coin.
I don’t believe in the concept of being “color-blind.” I find it offensive to everyone involved. Why should anyone pretend someone doesn’t look the way they do? How is that respectful? One constant in my life is my need for authenticity. Facing tough issues by talking about them; I don’t do well with elephant’s snoozing on the throw rug nearby.
It my own need for honesty and clarity that had me obsessing, desperate for an intense and intimate conversation about race every time I ran in to this woman. Entirely annoying, of course, since I knew I was just doing it again. Not seeing her as a woman, a mother, a wife, a writer, a social justice activist, but only seeing her Blackness. I really didn’t want to, but I knew if I pretended I wasn’t, it would just make it worse.
In college, I studied and fell in love with “Symbolic Interactionism.” Put forward in force by Herbert Blumer but made real to me by Erving Goffman, the idea that we all together strive most of all to maintain a coherent sense of reality. The “presentation of self” is disturbed when an individual becomes obsessed with their own performance. Smooth interactions between individuals are the goal of most players in life, most of the time throughout our daily lives (most don’t walk down a crowded busy street intentionally slamming into other people, we work together as individuals to keep the peace).
I know in my past I have suffered from white guilt and that has prevented me from behaving naturally. It’s humiliating, really, but, it’s my own shit.
Playing with dollhouse toys, my daughter announced one afternoon that she called one set of dolls the dark-skinned dolls. She didn’t say that the other set was the light skinned dolls. I gathered myself together enough not to launch in to a whole history of race issues in the USA. She’d made a simple observation. We’ve tried to always be sure she has characters in books with lots of different backgrounds, tried to always have dolls that are not only blond and white, knowing every little thing is part of the greater picture. We talked to her about melanin when she first asked about darker skin after visiting my parents’ church. We’ve done everything we can to not make a big deal, but to still keep the option for deeper discussion open. And, yes, I am probably over-thinking it way too much. But, then again, I’m really not.
We live in a state (Maine) where it’s not common to see people who aren’t white. Economic status is more varied than where I grew up, but trying to recognize those differences takes a judgmental frame of mind, not easy for a four year old to pick up on. We visit Boston (awfully white city, but relatively International) and come across families speaking other languages, wearing interesting clothes, looking remarkably different. It’s nice, and we talk about things with her, but what will help Maya most?
I tried signing her up for a Kwanzaa celebration class for toddlers, but was vastly disappointed when the instructor slipped up and asked the class if they knew about the country of Africa. I do believe that experience with people with darker skin, with different languages, and with different cultural backgrounds is the best thing we can give Maya (and ourselves). But, how can this happen and not be contrived?
I’ve written previously about my six grade field trip on a bus into Hartford where the teachers showed us “urban decay” and “urban renewal.” They actually stopped the busses in stressed out neighborhoods and said “this is urban decay.” I guarantee you there were people around those streets. How can [my husband] and I be sure that signing Maya up for classes or working to have playgroups where the kids aren’t just white isn’t a lot like that? I suppose it makes a difference if there is a genuine interest in the topic, or if the playgroup participants are actually friends. Knowing I have the motivation of “exposure” however, is what feels too close to that old frame of mind (“these people will give me the answers, ease my guilt”).
Today we went to the toy store where [my husband] and I very blatantly purchased an excessively expensive and annoying toy strictly for bribery (you reach this milestone, we’ll celebrate with this toy!). We reached the shelves and the Baby Alive toys available were only the dark skinned, curly haired dolls (sort of African American looking, though I think they all look like aliens). We had watched a movie on the computer that morning as we whetted her appetite for the thing where the freakishly large-eyed blond baby says, “uh oh, I made a stinky!” I flinched at the shelf. I wondered if I should be prepared for Maya to say, “That isn’t the doll we saw, I want the other one!” I was really hoping I wouldn’t have to say, “It’s this doll or no doll,” because I didn’t want the darker doll to be the disappointing choice.
Maya didn’t say a word about how she looked different (even though the doll was surrounded by the blond dolls of the “pee-pee only” version). She hugged the box to herself. She has been cherishing the boxed doll all day (she gets to open it after she reaches her milestone).
On the way home from the store, this is what she said, “The company that makes these dolls must really want children to buy them!”
“Yeah, hunny, why is that?”
“Because she has dark skin and dark skin is the most beautiful.”
“Dark skin is beautiful, hunny, yes, they must know.”
Inside I’m not afraid her pale-skinned self-esteem is suffering, I’m doing a touchdown dance with fireworks. Thinking, at least at the moment, she’s making good associations.
A few months ago (a year?) I said to the “she’s black she’s black she’s BLACK” woman who I had come to know on some deeper levels, “It’s so nice to finally know you as a just a person.” I honestly don’t remember if we went forward with that conversation at that point, or later in safer email, but, it’s true that she’s the first Black woman (and Latina, it turns out) who I consider a friend. And, it’s most definitely true that while I have fleeting thoughts of “wow, that hair is so cool,” or, “her skin is so stunning,” I realize I have thoughts like that about all of my friends in different ways (“how does she pull of those knit caps?” “when does she have the time to shave her legs?” “her hair always looks so clean.”). They are fleeting and I’m not obsessed.
[My husband] doesn’t have the same hang-ups I do. He grew up in a much more culturally diverse world (Southern New Mexico). He’s also blessed with an ability to not over-think things. But, he knows what I’m talking about when we try to decide how to help Maya not think that this world (Maine) is typical of the rest of the world. He knows how gross it feels to imagine signing Maya up for a playgroup or class only because we know she’d meet kids who aren’t white. I suppose, like everything, I’ll have to turn this over to faith. Trusting that it will all work out because God’s in charge and I’m not.
I don’t know the answers. I don’t know how I can help Maya make friends without having an internal explosion about race or class issues go on in her brain. For this day, for this moment, I’ll take Maya finding the “dark skin is the most beautiful” as a pretty good start.