EDITOR’S NOTE: When we read this post by Kelly Wickham, a high-school vice-principal and highly regarded blogger on her blog Mocha Momma we realized that it tells us everything we need to know about why we bother with Care2 and what it tries to do: keep making change.
Yesterday I came into contact with a racist.
A table full of them to be exact. My contact with them could have gone much better on my part. But I’m cynical about this sort of stuff having grown up light-skinned enough to “pass”. I come by that honestly. Now, my father, on the other hand, is much darker than I and his sister, one of my favorite aunts, is a lovely caramel color and if you were to see the whole family lined up you’d find every conceivable shade available. To me, this is a beautiful sight.
I could have politely interrupted their loud (no, really, this was ridiculously loud) conversation about all the “Pakistanis” and “Blacks” and “foreigners” that are taking over and how they’re everywhere. There were plenty of hateful things that came out of their mouths and each time they said something I responded back. Loudly. But not directly. Only the woman heard me and she obviously got them to pay attention to the fact that they were bothering other patrons around them. Eventually, they left.
It is a terrible thing, this being able to pass. There is the strange position I’ve found myself in that shocks me, it always shocks me with a jolt, when someone starts speaking this code that they are sure you understand. They lean in, pull you into their circle of trust, and then betray it. They assume you agree with them. You must! You look white! So you probably totally understand their racism!
Mind you, these older people probably felt justified in being able to have their conversation in public because they’ve always talked like that. Before you go defending their bad behavior let me say this: It’s 2010. TWO THOUSAND TEN. In the year of 2010 my President is Black and so is theirs. THE PRESIDENT. IS BLACK. (Or MIXED. MULATTO. Whatever.) The Civil Rights Movement happened in their lifetime. I sincerely hate it when people excuse them with, “But that’s their generation. That’s what they grew up with! They don’t know any better!” Instead of doling out pardons for their racism let me suggest that they ought to be embarrassed that they’ve lived through all of that and still haven’t learned anything from it. Let me propose that they’ve have multiple opportunities to learn from their lives in America and have managed to have their racism forgiven time and time again. Let’s just all take responsibility for that.
One time when I was dating a guy in college he took me home to meet his parents. I was nervous because I was a 19-year old girl/woman who had a daughter by then and he was a single, college-aged boy so it concerned me that his family would be upset by that. Unfortunately, I was focused on the wrong thing. What they were upset about in regards to me was that I was Black. That is what bothered them about me when they first met me. From hearing this boy tell me about his family I was shocked because it didn’t seem like they would be like that. I had to ask him, “Let me get this straight. Your brother is married to a Korean woman and your sister is a lesbian and your parents have a problem with ME?”
Before I digress too far let me just say I ended up marrying (and divorcing) him and that I gave his family the whitest damn grandchildren ever produced. Seriously. They’re nearly transparent.
My father, also of the generation of people in question, is getting older. He’s reached his 70s and doesn’t like to live in the racism of his past. Rarely does he talk about it. But there are things about him that are so progressive and innovative and he’s always, in my mind, been that way. His sister once recounted a story that made my sisters and I see him in an entirely new light and, in some ways, sort of explained him to us. He was young, maybe 10 or so, and he was going to get a new pair of shoes. Back in the day (it’s kinder to use that then to tell you just what decade in which this occurred) that was a big deal. New shoes? That was luxurious! Normally, my dad wore shoes until the soles wore off and then put cardboard in them repeatedly until it was finally time for a new pair. His father was supposed to take him shopping and he went downtown to where he, my grandfather, was working at the time to meet him and be taken to the shoe store.
I never met my grandfather on my dad’s side. He died before I was born, but I know enough about him to know that he “passed” for white in the early part of the century. He got jobs as a “white man” and was hired because he looked white enough. When my dad went downtown to get my grandfather that day he waited and waited for him to come out. He never did. Finally, he asked for someone to get his dad in the shop and another worker (a manager? an owner? I don’t know.) brings my grandfather to the front of the store because this kid is claiming to be his son and he’s been out there waiting.
This kid. My father. Who is dark. Who is Black.
“This nigger kid waiting out here says he’s your son.” That word, and you know which one, always jars me when I hear it told in this story.
Until, of course, I hear the part where my grandfather shakes his head back and forth and replies: “I’ve never seen him before.”
When my aunt told this story my dad was quiet and my hand flew up to my mouth and I searched my sister’s faces and we all sat still and cried. And we’ve never really spoken of it and he might not like that I’ve shared that story in writing but it has to say something about our family and our place in this country that it’s even an experience worth recounting. I think this is true especially since people’s feelings on race are still not at a place where we can talk comfortably about it. Granted, the fact that my grandfather denied my father as his son so he wouldn’t lose his job happened a long time ago and these old, white racists sitting at their table in a public restaurant next to me are from the same era. All parties lived through the same decades even though they lived vastly different lives.
Last week, my dad called me on St. Patrick’s day to wish me luck and a good day. Come on. This Black man had a daughter with an Irish-German woman and named her Kelly and my sisters are named Tracy and Erin. We kind of have to celebrate, you know?
I’d like to think that there are more like me and my family. I’d like to think that I’m normal. Maybe even that people like me are taking over.
Whatever the hell that means.
Kelly Wickham by Katherine Corea Photography
by Kelly Wickham