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.