Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Candy

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.

25 comments:

Oh Brother! said...

Beautiful.

Love,

bro

Vanessa said...

I always think it's stupid for us to pretend we are all the same. When we acknowledge our differences we always feel bad about it. But noticing it isn't wrong. Kids are great that way. They're honest.
I've had many kids look at me and ask why I have spots on my face. I tell them they're freckles, and it's usually the end of the story. That has nothing to do with race, I just think it's funny.

mosey along said...

I find myself nodding my head a lot when I read your posts. You captured the situation perfectly and isn't it always the way that the perfect response comes to mind much later when the moment has passed?

Never too late though to say "remember that lady we saw? I was thinking about her and how beautiful she was..." We were watching an interview on the BBC Planet Earth series recently with an African woman with a colourful head scarf and skin so deep I wanted to touch it. My daughter said "isn't she so beautiful?" It made me heave a sigh of gratitude and relief....

Petunia Face said...

Yeah, I've since recovered my composure and explained to Zoey that we all come in different shades, some the darkest of black, others the palest of white, and then all the beautiful shades in between.

Vanessa--she also loves my freckles. Although I am not lucky enough to have them splashed across my face like you, I have freckles all over my arms and she loves them. She got so excited in Costa Rica when a freckle appeared on her wrist (and I just felt guilty for not putting enough sunscreen on her).

And then she tries to put Hello Kitty band-aids on my pimples. The kid misses nothing.

xo,
S

Elizabeth said...

Oh, the joys of parenting. My two year old calls every black person we see "Barack Obama". Before Charlie was born we moved not so far from downtown Seattle from the burbs. We thought that it would be more diverse and a better representation of the world with people of different backgrounds at every turn. Well, we were wrong. We actually live in a less diverse area and although feel pretty comfortable, often talk about the guilt we feel for being so insular.

mosey along said...

Ergghh. Sorry.... reading my comment back it sounds like I'm telling *you* that it's never too late to say something - I meant to tie that in better with the rest of my paragraph where I had to rectify a similar situation with my own daughter.

More coffee...

Petunia Face said...

No worries Mosey Along! I didn't feel as if you were telling me :)

If anything, I've been pushing the whole beautiful acceptance thing down her throat, bringing it up at the oddest of times to try and make up for not saying anything in the moment. She's probably wondering why the hell mommy keeps talking about all the pretty rainbow colors of skin.

jen said...

My mom told me a story once abotu when she was little. She told a black woman "you have a dirty face!" THAT is so much worse. oy.

One time we were in a store and a very large woman walked by us. My son (age 2) looked at me and said, with a sparkle in his eye and wonder in his voice "That lady is FAT!" I almost died. I think he thought it was just amazing, not bad or good. I dragged myself out from the row of merchandise I had dived behind and said something like "Yes I know honey. And SHE knows. But maybe she doesn't want to be reminded up of because she might feel bad."

Lame answer, but fat is my black. I want my kids to not judge people for their size OR their ethnicity or anything other than their character. But how do you explain that to a 2 year old?

jen said...

holy crap i had a lot of typos.

sorry!

Kari said...

I lived in a very white nieghborhood in Michigan for a time when I was a child. Our cleaning lady, Thomasina, was the first black person I had ever seen in my life. At first, I was afraid of her. For no reason at all - my parents were like yours...free to be you and me. I'm ashamed of that memory.

Lisa said...

My father saw his first black person on a bus when he was a kid. He loudly asked his mother why the man was so dirty. This was back in the 1940s, so his comment probably wasn't as shocking as it would be now, but his mom was still pretty embarrassed.

Up until I was seven or eight my family lived in a ghetto. My parents were separated, so my mother struggled with trying to support her six children whilst trying to obtain her PhD. The ghetto was all we could afford at the time. I grew up in a pretty unique situation, being the minority in my surroundings. Most of my friends were black, some Latino. A friend of my mother's was also living with us. She needed a place to stay, and my mom needed help with us, so we grew up with a black woman in the home helping to raise us. She was a very maternal figure in my life.

I knew my friends looked different than me, but it wasn't anymore noteworthy to me at the time than another white kid who had pale skin, blue eyes and blonde hair in contrast to my tanned skin, brown eyes, and brown hair. It wasn't until we moved into a white neighborhood that I REALLY began to notice the differences. It's sad, but once my family stopped living amongst them, blacks and Latinos became this noticeably separate group from us. I had to start fighting against the US and THEM mentality, but it was hard when that was all I experienced around me in that white neighborhood.

CSchoech said...

The Cosby show was popular when my son was about 4 years old. One evening while watching he looked at me and with wonder in his eye, commented that they ALL had black hair. Judging from his friends, I think he's still color blind. ; )

JennyLo said...

I love your writing style! Kids say the darndest things! I think your daughter will love to read all these stories one day when she grows up. Although, Im sure she will be a bit embarrased about herself when she reads todays post! lol.

Robin said...

Wonderful post.

My nieces live in a bit of a bubble and when my mother-in-law took them to the mall and they saw a black woman, the youngest pointed and started shouting "Oprah, Oprah, Oprah!" Oy!

Adriene said...

My son also mistook a beautiful black woman as Oprah. He was so happy he ran to her for a hug.

As I stammered and felt my ears burn, she was so lovely she knelt down and gave him a hug. She asked him his name...and really played along as if she was indeed Oprah. She let him touch her necklace and complimented his golden hair. After our encounter, I realized she had taught my son and I how beautiful and interesting diversity is. It should be recognized and celebrated as it is through the eyes of a curious child.

Robin said...

When I was in first grade I fell and split my lip open. The dr. that stitched me up at the ER was black, with very, very dark skin. He had to put his face thisclose to mine to see what he was stitching, and I was so mesmerized by how black his skin was that I was oblivious to the pain, the blood, the size of the needle, etc.

Anonymous said...

Ooooh, I have been there with this one. Many years ago when my daughter Madeline was 3, she and I were sitting on the edge of a hotel pool near the steps. As a "big, beautiful" woman stepped out of the pool, Madeline, loudly and clearly stated, "Mommy, that lady is FAT!" I looked at the woman, extended the most compassionate (but I'm sure read as the absolute lamest) smile I could muster, then explained to my sweet child that some people may be embarrassed if we shout the word "fat" at them. My discipline/explaining clearly worked because later that week when we were walking around our garden, Madeline yelled, "Hey Mom! Look at that bumble bee... oh... (then she whispered very quietly in my ear)... it's really fat."

Not so Anonymously signed,
Katy... Megan's (of BB8) friend

p.s. LOVE your writing!

Sharon, The Queen Blogger said...

This reminds me of a time when my little son yelled "Mommy! There's Jesus!" while pointing frantically at a real live hippy.

We were at the mall, so maybe it was Jesus because real hippies are never at the mall.

Erin said...

Love, love, love this post, S.

And, Elizabeth, during the campaign, my then-2-year-old son also called any "official"-looking black person on TV "Obama!!" whether it was a fireman or police officer on the news, Judge Mathis, or pretty much any black person standing at a podium with flags in the background.

Alexsandria said...

Can I use profanity? Because I really want to say that I fucking LOVE your blog! Absolutely love it!
I hope you can understand that the "f" word was required to convey the true depth of my love for your blog.

Melaney said...

Amen Sister!

Neola, multi-racial from the Caribbean said...

I'm not sure why, in your post- mortem of the incident there was a felt need to say "yes, sweetie pea, her face is black and isn't her skin beautiful?". I'm multi-racial btw, my grandparents are African, Caucasian, Spanish and Indian, and our culture in the Caribbean is different because we have every mixture of races imaginable living together. but i must say, to stick in the "isn't her skin beautiful?" sounds like a condescending handout instead of the "compliment" you may have meant it to be. i'm not even sure why, at your daughter's innocent observation of anothers' black skin you felt so mortified and embarassed.until we, as a race of HUMANS can get past this..."the words that nobody is supposed to say" we will never be capable of TRULY being non-prejudiced. why, may i ask, are we not "supposed to say" that we come in different colours?? what happens when we see a person who has black skin who happens to not be aesthetically pleasing? does it make us racist to think a black person is ugly? romanticizing black skin as eternally and infinitely beautiful or "skin so deep that we want to touch it" and feeling "relief" when one's daughter thinks someone black is beautiful is just discrimination in another form i'm afraid.

Petunia Face said...

Hi Neola,

Thanks for your comment, and you are right--I meant what I said as a compliment. I never saw it as condescending but I can sort of see it now.

I don't know the answers here or even what the question is, really. I just remember the shame of being little and seeing the difference and sort of knowing I wasn't supposed to see a difference and I wasn't sure why. All these years later it's still pretty confusing and nebulous and scary to me. I want to do the right thing, think the right thing, act the right way and teach my daughter what is right but sometimes I don't know what that is. And that's as honest as I get.

Any way, thanks for your comment. This is the great thing about blogging--dialogues that help me to understand something.

xo,
S

Neola said...

hi Susannah...
thanks for replying :-) i felt kinda exposed leaving my real name there for a minute, i've commented here before but i thought i'd leave my real name today because i wanted to just put myself and my voice out there u know?
i don't have any answers either, and i'm not a mother...interesting story here...my 2 grandmothers could not be more different...one had pale brown skin and straight, soft hair and the other, an afro and dark brown skin, and i never...not for a second, noticed a difference between them until i got older and people made me see it with their "oh! THAT's your grandmother?!" exclamations.
i suppose until i have a child as well, or maybe have a child in a culture where one race is the more prevalent one, i may not understand the nuances and fears and the is-this-right-ness that comes with trying to teach another to see the world in a certain way.
i appreciate your honesty and your openness to finding some worth or validity in what i said, which is why i have always, and will continue to read you.
[i know i'm rambling now, i'm almost done promise!] i've been lucky to have been born in a mixed race family, we literally have every race in your family except Chinese, and it's a wonderful thing to acknowledge that we all are different, to see it, talk about it, ask about it, question it,love it, or even hate it sometimes...i may not know much, but i do know...that seeing our differences and exploring and accepting them as part of our common human story is a great step towards "right thinking",
love, Neola.

L said...

oh, my eyes leak every.single.time.i.visit.you.

and i love it.

thank you, susannah, for your honesty and bravery. the most difficult things to talk about are usually the most important.

with love from pittsburgh...