It’s Not Always Black or White

A week ago I am on line at Dean & Deluca at Madison & 85th when I feel a tug at the hem of my dress. First, let us step back and acknowledge that I was in a dress and high heels. For those of you who don’t know me well enough to understand the importance of this, it means I was dressed-up. I, who mostly run gorgeously amok in slacks or pantsuits and blouses with sneakers, occasionally wake up some mornings and let the girlie in me take over. I put some serious effort into looking more all-out feminine than usual by wearing an actual dress, high heels and seriously glaming it up. This was one of those days.

I look down and see an adorable ruddy-haired, freckle-faced moppet of sitting in a stroller that is she is obviously too old for smiling up at me. I look up to see a woman of what I guess to be Caribbean with her hands on the stroller handles (presumably the nanny or au pair) and another woman who is obviously the child’s mother standing next to them. I smile at the women, look down at the child and in the tone most adults reserve for speaking with young children address the child.

Me: My, aren’t you a pretty one!
Mother: Say thank you!
Child: Thank you!
Me: And how old are you sweetie?
Child: I’m six. Whose nanny are you?
Me: Why do you think I’m a nanny?
Child: Because you’re Black and….
Mother (really fast): She’s not a nanny silly girl! She’s just out shopping.

You heard that record scratch just then too, didn’t you?

It was a very slow rising of my head with the most patient and plastered smile on my face (thank you southern woman upbringing!) before I arched an eyebrow and addressed the dear sweet mother.

“Seriously? She’s all of six and already has the mindset that minorities must be in some form of servitude? How the hell have you managed to accomplish that despicable feat in such a short amount of time?”

The mother opened her mouth to speak, but I held up my hand stopping her.

“Children learn what their parents teach them, whether the parents realize a lesson was given or not. Now, unless you plan to raise her in a lily-white Stepfordian bubble where plantation rules apply and thus she will never know the truth, I suggest you check her burgeoning attitude and especially yours!” Those last two words were practically hissed; as I less than a foot from her face when I heard a cashier call out for the next customer and backed away.

The nanny/au pair was amazingly interested in a distant object – an apparently very distant object as glance over her before making my purchase. The mother at least had the grace to turn beet red before I turned away from her to make my purchase and leave the store.

The entire exchange reminded me of a Formspring question (several questions in one actually), which was asked of me a couple of weeks ago.

“Do you find more overt or hidden racism with people you interact with? Do you consider any of the people you are friendly with to display racist attitudes without intending to? Do you find yourself with racist attitudes towards others?”

I blew the question off on Formspring because I felt it was too loaded a question to be answered in such a fluff forum. So I bring it here…

“Do you find more overt or hidden racism with people you interact with?”

Even living in the “melting pot” that is NYC I would be a liar to say there is no racism here. More than enough yellow cabs ignore my hails in favor of others, to prove that point alone. It is here but absolutely more hidden, subtle, at least to me. There is the ever classic “shopping while Black” which happens whenever I am in any presumed (by the company’s standard) mid-to high-end establishment. If I have a moment of niceness and hold a door where a mixed group of races will pass through (such as a movie theater), generally, it is not someone of color who forgets their manners to acknowledge my actions and at least nod in thanks. Unfortunately, these are so incredibly commonplace that I know I have come to ignore it a lot more than I should at times. It is the more unusual encounters with strangers, such as above, that generally catch me off guard and illicit a reaction.

“Do you consider any of the people you are friendly with to display racist attitudes without intending to?”

Don’t we all, at some level, without intending to? Yes, those of us who are far from politically correct in our humor, who crack jokes at everyone’s expense equally, we get that. Still, who hasn’t had a moment something not quite right slip out of the mouth about another race/ethnicity? However, out and out “Oh no you didn’t!” moments? Only one friend once said something so outlandish as a joke and honestly didn’t have a clue as to how bad it was until he saw the expression on my face. I was so aghast; I could not respond and had to walk away. The next day, when I was in better frame of mind to voice my feelings with anger, but not blind fury, I let him have it. It was an ugly conversation. I know he walked away questioning the thought process that caused the situation to occur. It turned out to be the precursor to the beginning of the end of that close friendship. We still speak, but we’ve lost something that’s not likely to ever return us to the point of being close again. Still that was the exception. Luckily, I feel I can honestly say the people I am friendly with do not.

“Do you find yourself with racist attitudes towards others?”

I really, really, really wish I could give this question a heartfelt “Absolutely not!”, but I would be somewhat lying. When I run into situations like the one with the mother and daughter mentioned above, I do hear my mother’s racist attitudes against Caucasians a little louder in the back of my mind than what is probably good for me at that moment. I know that is where the “plantation rules” snark came from when addressing the mother, as that was one of her (my mother) favorite lines. One of those lessons learned, but this one was actively taught.

No one is raised to adulthood, in a society such as ours, without hearing stereotypes and other crap about other races, ethnicities etc. It’s what is done (or not done) with those little sub-programs running in our subconscious that defines whether or not a person is racist. Overall, I can honestly say, I do try to take in any situation good or bad based on the individual involved.

4 thoughts on “It’s Not Always Black or White

  1. Well, hopefully that mom will actually examine her “climate” after that one.

    I know my mom’s well-meaning but clueless form. As in asking if M has seen The Pursuit of Happyness, because it has “such a great role model” or sending him clippings about black people in Oregon, or telling me some long pointless story about the really nice man who helped her load books into the trunk of the car, and the reveal is -surprise!-

    I’ve had friends shock me with what fell out of their mouths, too. I do let people stand on their own merits, but I can’t really say if the cluelessness is in there too, ready to pop out appallingly.

    I hope you give me a good smack if it ever does, dear, so I can root out the beast and stomp it. I can count on you to do that, yes? 🙂

  2. Beautifully written, cuts right to the thick of it which is that, to this day, we are still a racist society. So much of it simply gets hidden under the guise of “keeping up appearances”. I remember telling my partner, Allyson, that one of the most interesting things Obama’s victory did was to reveal just how many people were, until that point, attempting to hide the complete and utter racism they still thought and felt in their moment to moment lives. But once something threatens their neat little racially divided world, CHAOS! I would have loved to have seen the look on that woman’s face when you confronted the situation – it must have been priceless.

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