Saturday, January 4, 2014

In black and white...

Melinda is one of my favorite friends.  She’s incredibly bright, articulate, funny and kind. She’s also beautiful, which makes her someone I really don’t want to like as much as I do, but, fortunately for me, her kindness and all-around-awesomeness cover over that particular flaw. And she’s a New Yorker, which means that no matter where I drag my sorry, plain-jane, Midwestern self behind her, it ends up being a special event.  She’s cool that way. She makes things special.  She makes me feel special. That’s why she’s my friend. One of my favorites.

No matter where we go, whether to the ballet (another favorite) or to get a pedicure or a cup of coffee, something happens that I can always count on.  I notice it each time and when I mention it to Melinda, she does this Brooklyn-ite thing where she makes a “tsk-ing” sound with her mouth and flaps her hand at me and tells me that I’m crazy. Which is likely true, but not the point.  The thing I notice just about every time I pay attention is that I get preferential treatment by others when I am with Melinda.  Waitstaff almost always address me first when we are seated together. The ladies at the nail salon look past Melinda to me to ask how I am today.  In department stores, I am approached by salespeople first. Always.  And it doesn’t matter the gender, age, or ethnicity of the person in question.  People look past my dear friend, who is far more approachable, far prettier, and far nicer than I am, every time.

When I first started noticing this phenomenon, I thought perhaps it was because she is so fabulous that she intimidates people.  Especially other women who are not as fabulous.  Or that it was my inherent hesitancy…I tend to hang back and perhaps service people, those who are in helping professions (waitstaff, sales people, etc) wanted to draw me out when I might not be bold enough to ask for what I want.  Or perhaps they recognized a clueless Midwesterner who doesn’t really know that a pedicure should cost around $25 and not $60.  Of course, I thought it was all about me. It had to be something wrong with me that everyone could see and respond to that was causing this strange behavior in others.

But those are not the reasons. The reason is far more basic and far more awful than I imagined.

It’s because I’m white. And Melinda is black.

I told this to a colleague (male, white, 30 something) and his response was, “Well, maybe, maybe not, but I’m not carrying ‘white guilt.”

Really?  That’s your response?

Not, “Wow, that’s interesting!” or “You’re crazy!” or even, “Why should I care?”  His response is the same response many white folks in America have whether at a conscious or sub-conscious level.  “It’s not my problem and I can’t even think about it” is the message I got from him.  His response shut the door on further conversation.  That’s what happens when we touch a nerve….the door slams shut and the conversation is over and nothing ever changes.

It’s not just me; other people have experienced this phenomenon.  Another colleague, Grace, shared an experience of going through airport security with her son when he was 8 months old.  A security guard approached her and told her she would have to “surrender” her child to the authorities until his identity could be established.  Grace had forgotten his birth certificate, which, in most instances, is not a big deal. In fact, I have traveled alone with my three sons since they were very young and have never once been asked for their birth certificates or any form of identification for them at airports.  But I am white, and Grace is black.  Grace’s husband is white and her children are mixed race but have very fair skin and appear white.  The airport security guard assumed that a black woman carrying a “white” baby must be a problem.  Grace refused to hand her child over to the guard and stood her ground.  When asked how the situation was resolved her answer was, “I have a white husband.”

So, I have to think…what if Grace had a black husband and just happened to have very light skinned children?  What if Grace had a Hispanic husband? What might the outcome of that situation have been?

I cannot imagine such a scenario as anything other than a story someone told me. I have never been questioned or been the object of suspicion because of my appearance.  It horrifies me, as it would horrify any mother, that I could be that vulnerable and unable to protect my own child from “the authorities.”  It horrifies me that I should have to even think about protecting my children from “the authorities.”  In my world, the authorities are there to protect me, right?  Well, perhaps they are, but not from what I think they are there to protect me from…

In a conversation with several colleagues about our teenaged children getting their drivers’ license, another colleague of mine told us, rather matter of factly, (not trying to be dramatic or exaggerate or even make a point, he was just telling us the story as he lived it), about his instructions to his son regarding how he should behave should he be pulled over by the police while driving.  He shared how he had instructed his son to place both of his hands on the steering wheel, not give eye contact to the officer, and remain calm at all times.  He instructed his son to do exactly what the police officer told him to do and never to argue or question his/her instructions.  He said, “I told him that he should think about everything he does and says and make sure nothing can be interpreted as a threat.”

I’ve never had that conversation with my sons and all three have had their drivers’ license for a while.  It never occurred to me that I should have that conversation, that they should have to be on guard with the police and maintain a close watch on their actions and words so as not to be perceived as threatening.  After all, I just assume that if my son is pulled over by a police officer, he (my son) has clearly done something wrong. Why else would he be pulled over?

But my sons are white.  My colleague’s son is black.

Black teenagers get pulled over for any reason at all, especially if they are driving in a wealthy suburb.  Black, male teenagers are often perceived as a threat by white police officers (and white folks in general) even if they are doing nothing wrong.  Even if they are just driving home from school in the suburb where they live. 

Whatever your personal feelings about the Treyvon Martin case, I can tell you this: my youngest son dresses exactly like he did.  My youngest son walks to and from the deli on the corner and can often be found carrying candy and energy drinks or soda, wearing baggy pants and a slouchy hooded sweatshirt. Sometimes I think my son looks like a hoodlum, but I never, ever worry that someone will perceive him as a threat in our neighborhood and chase him down.  I never (well not before now) worry that my son won’t come home from the deli with his candy and soda.  I never worry that my son will be shot for walking down the street of a middle class subdivision.

But my son is white. And Treyvon Martin was black.

And that inherent suspicion of black people by white people, that automatic preference for white skin and the automatic assumption that a white person is right and a black person is wrong has a name.  It’s called “white privilege.” You can toss aside your white guilt all day long but that doesn’t change the fact that we are a society based upon and invested in maintaining white privilege.

Grace tells another story of being in line at the supermarket with her son when a white woman came right up to them, took Grace’s son by the hand, pointed at Grace, and asked him, “Is this your mommy?”

He replied, “NO! That’s my MAMA!”

The woman asked again, “Is this your mommy? What’s her name?”

The four year old boy had no idea what his mother’s name was….she was Mama. What four year old boy knows his mother’s first name?

The woman held firmly to his hand and began to lead him away saying, “Let’s go find your mommy.” To which Grace responded, “Excuse me! I am his mother and if you do not let go of my child, I will call the police!”

Yeah, that’s never happened to me. 

When I posted that conversation on my Facebook page (as a re-post of Grace’s blog post on her experiences of being a black mom to white-looking kids--see link at bottom) to see how friends might respond, I fully expected outrage and empathy from other moms for Grace.  One response startled me…
“Well, maybe that woman had mental illness, we should consider the source.”

Ok. I appreciate an empathic heart…one who chooses not to judge quickly…but this conversation was posted as a whole blog post with 9 examples of Grace's experiences of being a black mother with children who look white and the grief she has experienced over the years at the insensitivity of white people and the overwhelming presence of white privilege.

But this white “friend” would prefer to believe mental illness was the problem rather than prejudice.  Because that would be easier to tolerate.  That allows us to toss aside white guilt again. The poor creature (who was white) was mentally ill and couldn’t help herself.  She just wanted to help.

Except that she could. Except that she acted intentionally and thoughtlessly and in a privileged and wrong manner.  Even if mental illness was to blame (maybe especially if mental illness was to blame) the fact remains that a white woman felt justified in taking the hand of a child that was not hers, a child standing with his mother, because he was standing next to a black woman.  If Grace had been white, that woman would never have looked twice. Mental illness aside, if Grace had been white, I wouldn’t have a story to tell you.

If the woman who took Grace’s son by the hand had been black and Grace and her son were white, there would be police involved. And a trip to the local police station. And likely a restraining order and possibly a news crew.

But Grace is black.  And the woman who suspected her of taking a child that was not hers was white.  And in our culture, that is ok.  In our culture, that is acceptable behavior.

Except that it’s not.

To read Grace's blog post go here: Grace's Blog Post    Thanks, Grace, for letting me use your stories!

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