The other day I was at our local library with my daughter. While checking out our books, I got into a conversation with the librarian: How old is your daughter, what does she like to read, etc.?
The woman in line behind me couldn’t help but overhear. She asked where my daughter went to school. When I named our local school for the 3rd-5th grade, she looked pained. Turns out, her son attends the local K-2nd grade school. The mother explained they were thinking of moving because, “No one looks like my blonde hair, blue-eyed son.”
Yes, she really said that. Because when she looked at me, she saw a white lady. (In my previous blog I explained how I frequently “pass”, because most people can’t see the Lebanese part of me.)
But did she really not see my brown-skinned, black-haired daughter?
I found myself embroiled in a conversation about the minutiae of recent Board of Education decisions. I explained just how good our schools were, while she complained that they couldn’t possibly be good because of this, that, and the other typical “white flight” argument. I countered with my kids’ stellar scores on state exams, the level of work I saw them doing, the quality of the teachers and administration, and the fact that my son had just made Junior National Honor Society.
She summed up her arguments with the classic, “But our property values are going to drop. I mean, who would want to move here?”
I have no idea what I said to that, because at that moment I noticed my beautiful, brown-skinned, black-haired daughter had wandered far away from her embarrassing mother who argues with strangers about sensitive racial issues in public places. Some how I ended the debate and got us out of there.
But all the way home I fumed. Who would want to move here? I would want to move here! I moved us here on purpose! When I heard work was taking us to the New York area, I saw it as an opportunity to find a town and school district that matched our diverse family. I did my research and found a place with a true racial, ethnic, religious, and socio-economic mix.
And I mean a real mix. In our little city, people don’t just move into the neighborhood that looks like them. People meet each other and marry each other. Our white-Arab-Latino family doesn’t look strange when we show up at school functions. My kids have plenty of friends who also don’t “match” their parents. Chinese/white, black/white, black/Latino, Latino/Arab: these are just some of the combos in my children’s social set.
So there, racist white-flight mommy! That’s what I so judgmentally and self-righteously thought. Until I realized that I was not so different. She wanted to move to a place that reflected her family because she believed it would make her son more comfortable. I had moved us to a little city that reflected our family for that same reason. Just because my family is mixed and I moved us to a mixed place, am I any less racist?
Not that I’m going to deny white privilege and the whole history of our nation. But I have to admit you’re kind of judged if you do, judged if you don’t when you’re white. Move into a racially or ethnically different area, you’re guilty of gentrification. Move to an all-white area, you’re guilty of “white flight”.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this lately, and I’ve come to the conclusion that we all walk around with these big racial/ethnic/religious/socio-economic chips on our shoulders unless we actively work to remove them. And it’s not just white people who need to do this work.
I was at a school function where our wonderfully educated kids were presenting research projects on deep, difficult topics. A mom I know asked me, “What did your son do?”
“Rural Guatemalan Poverty,” I proudly answered.
“Rural Watermelon Poverty?” The mom had misheard. She’s also black, and she believed I had allowed my son to use a Southern black stereotype to discuss rural poverty. *
“No! Guatemalan Poverty,” I explained. She was embarrassed, I was embarrassed, we both laughed, and then we were okay with each other. But there it is: a highly educated, racially and socially aware mom who knows me and my politics well can suddenly think a very strange thing about me or my son based on a misunderstood word.
So how many times do I misunderstand what someone is saying to me? Maybe I hear the words, but I bring a whole lot of my history into the mix, and I miss their history as a result. I don’t hear their context, or I misread their emotions. I don’t know why they think the way they do, and before I give them a real chance to explain, and before they give me a chance, we’re squaring off in our typical, polarized corners. To mangle Mathew 7:3, maybe I need to remove the log from my own shoulder, before I point out the chip on my neighbor’s.
*If this confuses you, please see “How Watermelons Became a Racist Trope” at http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/12/how-watermelons-became-a-racist-trope/383529/