An acquaintance of mine stared flatly at me a couple months ago and said, “I don’t see race.” I looked at her and smiled – because that’s how I react when I’m caught off guard in uncomfortable situations – and quickly determined whether this was a conversation to fight or surrender. Because I do see race …and I think it’s beautiful.
So I told her just that, mainly to calm the raging waters already spilling overboard in my insides. But it also left me with questions of why and how this came to be – and what it potentially means for the future, for my future.
I grew up in a largely white area of Oregon, where culture was not defined by the color of our skin but by the clothes we wore and the amount of dye we used on our hair. [Were you going for a look reminiscent of Angela’s alternative tresses in My So Called Life, or Donna’s platinum blonde locks circa 90210?] But for the minor population of Hispanic migrant workers and the occasional spotting of Native American children from the neighboring Chemawa Indian School, my school and my church, my neighborhood and my community remained largely white. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties, after attending a (mostly) white liberal arts college and teaching at a (mostly) white private high school that life, for me, turned its own unique shade of Technicolor.
Moving schools to teach at a public high school in San Jose, California, I remember looking around at the 38 desks strewn about the space, at the squirrely freshmen occupying every sweat-filled seat in my classroom that lacked air-conditioning. Here, the school boasted of 43 different languages spoken, celebrating in our differences, rejoicing in the diversity that unites the human race. Here, I was the one who stood out, for I was the minority. And over time, I realized that I didn’t want to lose this beauty. I didn’t want to lose who I’d become over the course of nine short months in this environment, even if it took me awhile to figure out how to navigate this in my life.
I went on to work for a non-profit, a ministry that boasted generous numbers of kids of color, but whose workers remained largely white (and largely male, as my years on staff progressed). I remember taking a group of teenagers to camp one summer, and clucking like a proud mama hen as I surveyed the diversity that filled the bus: kids of every ethnicity, from black to white, Hispanic to Asian, Pacific Islander to Native American, joined together. I knew this did not come from me, but from the students themselves, for this particular group of teenagers was a product of their environment. And the place we each called home – the greater San Francisco Bay Area – is a place that (on its best day) not only prides itself on but also practices a true inclusion of all persons.
To me, this glimpse of inclusion represented a picture of racial reconciliation, of what we can be, and of what we should be. And who knows, maybe it was this picture of what-can-be that subconsciously led me to I stop dating white men altogether. Maybe this is why I ultimately found myself saying “I do” to a man of melt-in-your-mouth, chocolate brown skin.
Because when the “I” becomes a “we,” things change that much more. Life altogether changes, just as my own point of view morphs and changes; although I will not ever know what it’s like to walk in a black woman’s shoes, I now know what it’s like to walk down the streets of the deep south, foreign stares penetrating our interlocked fingers.
I know what it’s like for sweat to be the only stickiness that binds our hands together, when in desperation, we cling, one to the other.
I know what it’s like to be the lone white lady who sits in a black church on a Sunday morning, to swallow feelings of isolation and difference, to gulp down taunting questions that make me wonder if I stick out as much as the sore thumb I feel like.
But mostly I know the ache my heart holds for the physical and emotional pain my husband has experienced solely because of the color of his skin, the bruises he has received both inside and out.
Even if I sometimes still feel disqualified from expounding on the subject, even if I feel like the color of my skin prohibits me from telling my own story of race, I more than appreciated Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Americanah. Because honesty triumphs. The outsider becomes the centerpiece of the dining room table. And chapter after chapter, the issue of color hangs stark and naked on the clothesline for all to see.
At one point in the book, “Shan,” a black woman, muses over her publisher’s thoughts regarding her memoir: “Can we have more nuance? He thinks we should complicate it, so it’s not [about] race alone. And I say, But it was race…” (336). And maybe that’s exactly what I appreciated: issues of color and division and race were brought to light, unapologetically and simply, even if the actual reality ends a bit harsher than the expected dose of comfort. This, if nothing else, gives me permission to not beat around the bush, so to speak. I don’t have to act like issues of race are not a prevalent factor when it comes to where and how we choose to raise our children, just as I don’t have to pretend to not see the many colors of the rainbow sitting beside me in coffee shops, pushing carts alongside mine in Target, crowding the cushions of my living room couch.
Because for me, when my eyes and my ears are opened, it is then that ultimate desire and truth collide. Then, I can hold in earnest the stories of race I’ve lived and the relics of color I’ve received. I can gaze, over and over again, at my imperfectly-perfect HBH (Hot Black Husband), who happens to be the most generous, thoughtful and life-giving force of a human I’ve ever met.
And in doing so I am filled with hope that in and by simply talking about issues of race, the color of our skin will not be a dividing force, but it will be a uniting force.
For collectively each of our hearts will will be changed, for the better, for the best.
So, do you see race? And what story from your life or print or song has changed you and opened your eyes regarding race?