I was at the grocery store with my mom the first time I became aware that black people were different than me. There used to be a Brach's candy display--remember those? Bins of caramels and Neopolitan chews, gelatin fruit slices covered in beady granules of sugar. For five cents you could sample a candy, drop a coin in the slot of the metal box so I was standing there with my nickel--I always chose caramel. I don't know how old I was but I know I must have been young because I had yet to think about dropping in a penny instead of a nickel, or taking two caramels instead of one. Or three. That came later. A penny for five caramels. But then it was a nickel for one, of course, those were the rules, and as my small hand hovered over the slot of the metal box a black family walked by and I had the sudden awareness that they were black. And then I felt dirty and sad for thinking it; it was a secret, their skin and my thought. I could tell no one, I knew it was bad: my awareness that they were black and I was white.A few weeks ago Zoey and I were in J. Crew looking at racks of salmon colored pique shirts when a saleswoman stopped to say hello to Zoey. "Well, don't you have beautiful eyes!" she said, and Zoey turned to me and said, "Mommy, her face is black." I grew up in a liberal family in a liberal town. We were accepting and open but oh, how we were also so very, very white. Black is beautiful and love everyone, free to be you and me, la la la... we preached to each other and felt good about ourselves because we weren't prejudiced or bad but we were also safe. With sameness all around it was not difficult to be just. (My step-father is in a wheelchair and likes children best because while they do stare unblinking at least they don't look away. Instead they ask, "why can't you stand up?" which is a totally legitimate question.)
Surrounded by salmon colored pique shirts, I panicked. I don't even know what I said but I know it wasn't full of grace; in fact, I am fairly certain I stuttered. Maybe even inhaled a thin nervous apologetic laugh as I took Zoey's hand and left the store. But it was true: the woman's face was black. Beautiful, dark, fairly gleaming. She was beautiful but all I could see was the ugliness of me being white and she being black and the words that nobody is supposed to say. Mommy, her face is black. I have my prejudices. I won't go into them here-it is of no service to anyone for me to voice my cobwebs. But I am working on them, recognizing them. I know they are there and I think it is important for people to recognize that we are not all free to be you and me all the time, but more free to be flawed but working on it, you and me. You know?
What I should have said is this: yes, sweetie pea, her face is black and isn't her skin beautiful? And then I would've picked up yet another salmon colored pique shirt because we were in J. Crew, after all. I should have tasted the sweetness of caramel, of gelatin fruit slices covered in sugar, I should have tasted the simple words of a girl who does not yet know the shame of observation, of noticing differences, of black and white and Neopolitan chews separated by color, one for five cents, because that is the rule.