Monthly Archives: July 2011

When Your White Husband Is Blacker Than You

A few years ago, Brian ran into a woman he knew while hiking in the woods in Dover, the sleepy, semi-rural town just over the bridge from our sleepy, semi-rural town. He was with our son Sky, who was then 3. It was summer, and Sky’s skin had that bronzed, Meso-American tint; the woman was a distant acquaintance and middle-aged. The conversation went like this:

Woman: “Is this your son? Oh, he’s adorable! Where did you get him from, Guatemala?”

Brian: “No, I got him from my wife.”

What he desperately wanted to say was, “No, I got him from my wife’s uterus” — and he would have, if he hadn’t known the woman. That he had the presence of mind to formulate a comeback (not to mention a reserve comeback he refrained from using) proves the maxim I have occasionally found to be in true in our nine-year marriage: Sometimes, and I hate to say this, Brian is a better black person than me. He’s never seen Do The Right Thing and he can’t hear the difference between Kanye and Q-Tip. But when it comes to knowing what to say in the face of racial ignorance — and not being afraid to make people feel uncomfortable in their ignorance — Brian’s got me beat cold.

My husband is one of the strangest white people I’ve ever met. He’s a blue-collar roofer with blond hair whose CD collection includes Public Enemy and a compilation of MLK sermons. He’s the baby of six in a traditional Irish-American family who believes the shortest route to anywhere you’re going is through Dover (the town where he was born), but who spent his 20s hitchiking the country — often with no plan and next to no money. He’s an award-winning slam poet who can’t stand what hip-hop has done to slam poetry, and an avid radio listener who can’t stand what right-wing shock jocks have done to radio. For years, I’ve had to deal with my own husband riding me for patronizing a local sub shop whose owners blast right-wing radio 24/7, and who generally seem to fit the profile of Obama-hating Tea Party loyalists.

“How can you eat there?”

“I don’t know . . . their subs are really, really good.”

“Francie, if it was up to people like you, blacks would still be sitting in the back of the bus.”

And yet, before we had kids, Brian was the kind of person who basically subscribed to the belief that if you focused on raising your kids right, things like race and their sense of blackness would take care of themselves. Now that we actually have kids, he is realizing that it is much, much more complicated than that.

Not long after we moved here, I was driving along Main Street and spotted a yard sale at a church. On a sunny weekend morning, nothing makes me happier than stumbling on a yard sale. Nothing. I hopped out of the car, and as I roamed among the vintage chairs and side tables, a woman working the sale — white, middle-aged, nice-as-pie smile — came up to greet me. “Now, tell me,” she said, “how on earth did you find out about a yard sale all the way out here?” And just like that, she crushed me. She crushed me and she also froze me: For what seemed like minutes, I couldn’t come up with anything. Then I said, very quietly, “I live here.”

Back in the car, I called Brian and told him how a woman I had never laid eyes on before ruined my day in under 15 seconds. When I told him what she had said, the comeback was instant. How did I find it? Well, I was on my way to a carjacking and thought I would stop and pick up a desk lamp. I would need a separate blog to document every time Brian has come up with something like this. It’s as routine as brushing your teeth in the morning, and quicker than the snap of a finger.

I often think: Why can’t I do it? Why am I always unprepared for racism, and Brian is always fully prepared? Is it because I’m a girl? Girls, we are taught, shouldn’t make others feel uncomfortable. Is it because I’m a good little immigrant black girl? Good little immigrant black girls, we are taught, should never, ever make the people around us feel uncomfortable. Even if a stranger can’t fathom that you live in her town; even if a sales clerk asks you for ID, not having asked the white person in line in front of you; even if someone tells you that the prejudiced thing they did or said isn’t their fault because they’ve only ever been exposed to people who look like them, do not, under any circumstances, go off. Because if you do, you will become “that” black woman. “That” black neighbor, “that” black coworker, “that” black sister-in-law or school mother. The trap door to that stereotype is so unconscious and so seductive, it will fly open every time.

My husband once told me that if he were black, he would be walking around in a constant state of anger and rage. I relayed that statement to a black friend a short time later, and he articulated in words what I already knew. “He’d be in a constant state of anger and rage for about five minutes,” he said. “Then, he’d just be tired and resigned.”

Spoken like a true black person.


Of One Blood

From my tiny New England town, I am cheering the tiny Kentucky town of Berea.

Until this past week, the only thing I could have told you for sure about Kentucky was that Abraham Lincoln was born there. I couldn’t have named Kentucky’s capital (Frankfort). I couldn’t have told you that Berea, Ky., is one of the fastest growing cities in the country, or that it was founded more than 150 years ago as an intentionally interracial town, where blacks and whites would live side by side. And I would not have guessed that in this little slice of Madison County, an entire population would stop its everyday comings and goings and rally behind an interracial couple victimized by racism.

On July 7, Damon Dunson and his girlfriend, Melanie Stamper, woke up to find the cars in their driveway spray-painted with racial slurs. According to Dunson, the word n***er was spelled three different ways. Dunson is black; Stamper is white. Most of the messages were directed at her, telling her to leave town.

In the two weeks since then, here’s what’s happened: A town resident named Mae Suramek walked to a local bank and set up a fund to raise money for the insurance deductible on the cars. A body shop owner in a nearby town offered to donate his time and labor to fix the cars. More than 40 residents invited the couple to a potluck dinner to talk about the incident and, according to Suramek, “make it known as a community that this would not be tolerated.”

Now, a group of citizens has asked the city council to establish a human rights commission. In doing so, they urged the city not to view the vandalism as an isolated incident, but as an opportunity to examine quieter, more pervasive forms of racism that go unnoticed. Their leaders have heard them: the mayor denounced the act as cowardly and deplorable. The president of Berea College threw the weight of the entire institution behind the couple, writing an open letter in support of them last week.

Every state has its stereotypes: Massachusetts is supposedly the land of ivory-tower intellectuals and die-hard liberals. Kentucky is supposedly the land of back-country rednecks and don’t-stop-for-gas-at-night-if-you’re-black racism. But looks can be deceiving. Here is a bluegrass state whose abolitionist founder built a church, school system and entire municipality on the principle of racial “interspersion,” a town whose college board of trustees passed a resolution allowing interracial dating in the 1880s.

A former colleague of mine, reflecting on the courage of protesters during the 1960s, once pondered whether she would ever be brave enough to stand up in the face of injustice. The sad truth is, many more people than we’d like to believe lack the courage to stick their necks out when they are witness to bigotry. I don’t want to take sides. I wish you weren’t so angry about this. I’m sorry it happened, but there’s really nothing I can do. That’s as true in the liberal lap of New England as it is in the Kentucky hills. But today, the ordinary people of Berea, Ky., want everyone to know: It is not the truth about them.

Ruby Bridges Was Six Years Old

The painting is called The Problem We All Live With, by Norman Rockwell, and last week, President Obama asked if the White House could borrow it from its permanent home at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. It commemorates Ruby Bridges, the first African-American child to attend a white elementary school in the South. Fifty years ago, on November 14, 1960, the girl marched through the doors of the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans with her copybooks and colored pencils, and without so much as a whimper. At first, seeing the surging crowd from a distance, little Ruby assumed it was Mardi Gras. “The show opened on time. Sound the siren. Motorcycle cops,” the author John Steinbeck wrote of the scene. “Four big marshals got out of each car and from somewhere in the automobiles they extracted the littlest negro girl you ever saw.” Steinbeck, who was 58 at the time, had left his dog and car in a parking lot miles away, fearing for their safety. Bridges, who was 6 years old, dodged eggs, tomatoes and the taunts of housewives no newspaper would print. She had been volunteered to the NAACP by her parents.

In the past year, since Sky turned 6, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about how and when to introduce him to ideas about race and racism: the velvety soft, laced with pearls, but-I-voted-for-Obama racism his mother has experienced. The let’s-all-be-color-blind (-while-you’re-still-cute-and-not-yet-that-teenager-wanting-to-date-my-daughter) racism he will almost certainly experience. The James-Byrd-in-Jasper, we-need-a-hate-crime-law-on-the-books-yesterday racism that makes other people feel much, much better about their racism. And I wonder — is the age of 6 too young to have the lid opened on this ugliness? Did I need to cloud Sky’s world by showing him that picture book with the stoic black mother saying, “No matter what anyone says, Martin, you’re just as good as anybody else?” In showing him that, was I fortifying him against those things “anyone” might say? Or was I simply introducing him to the idea that he might not, in fact, be as good as anybody else? When he asks about the problems between black people and white people, do I start every answer as I now do — “It was a long, long time ago” — even if a white person gave his black mother a problem that kicked the shit out of her last week?

From the looks of it, Ruby Bridges, now Ruby Bridges Hall, 56, seems like an extremely well-adjusted individual. (You can watch a video of her meeting with President Obama viewing the painting here). She not only lives in the city where protesters once laid a black doll in a miniature coffin outside her school; she volunteered in that school as a parent liaison in the 1990s, three days a week. (In 2005, like countless residents of New Orleans, Bridges Hall lost her home to Hurricane Katrina). She’s raised three children of her own and helped raise nieces who were orphaned. She runs her own foundation and tours the country with a message for all adults — the uneducated and the highly educated; the rural, urban, and comfortably suburban; the conservatives and the liberals who would like to believe it only applies to people living in Jasper: “Racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it.” If she could emerge from those schoolhouse doors as focused and forward-moving as when she walked in, why, exactly, do I worry about my 6-year-old knowing the story of the 6-year-old who did the walking?

Out of the Mouths

Kids are freakishly wise. This is a feature I started in the pre-Wordpress version of my blog to document the freakishly wise things that occasionally spill from my kids’ mouths.

Sky can knock me over with his musings sometimes (“Mama, why is Aunt Jemima always smiling?” he asked at age 3). But Rose, now 3 herself, is catching up.

On the staircase Tuesday night, staving off the inevitability of bedtime, a feminist was born:

“Mama? You know that Snow White story-show with the Snow White princess and that bad woman and that apple, and then she eats the apple and she dies on the floor, and then that big guy comes and he undeads her and then she wakes up and they begin to get married?”

“Yes, sweet sweet. What about it?”

“That’s really boring and sad.”

“I think so too, sweetie. I think so, too. Now go to bed.”

The Sometimes Ironic T-Shirt

A while back, I bought Satchel a t-shirt that reads “She’s My Mommy, Not My Nanny.” It’s a funny shirt.

What’s funnier is that because I’m an overextended working mother, and because I don’t pay much attention to what I yank from Satchel’s drawer in morning rush to get him dressed, he is much more likely to be wearing the shirt when he’s with Jana — our, um, nanny. Which means that in addition to people not thinking I’m Satchel’s mother when I’m out with him, people generally think Jana is his mother when she’s out with him and he’s wearing the shirt.

Being hip and ironic about your mixed-race family is complicated.

If you’re interested in these shirts, you can purchase them from the  Swirl Syndicate. They’ve got a bunch of new styles, too. The line-drawn blender is my favorite!!

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