Back when I was in high school, I had a huge crush on a football player. A crush which had no basis in reality, mind you, for I didn’t really know him at all. We didn’t have any classes together nor did we have any of the same friends, so my crush was simply based on how sweet and funny and smart my mind imagined him to be.
Not that it would have mattered if he had indeed known that I even existed for my parents would have never allowed me to go out with him anyway.
Because he was black.
I distinctly remember asking my mother one day if I would ever be allowed to date a black guy. Her reply started off with a, “not that we’re racist … but …”.
You can rest assured that anytime anybody ever says anything that hinges on a “but,” that whatever statement they just made can be completely erased.
“Oh sweetie, not that I don’t like your new hairstyle … but …”
“Oh darling, not that those jeans make your hips look wide … but …”
“Now I’m not saying your bourbon chicken wasn’t good … but …”
“Not that we’re racist … but … we just don’t think it’s appropriate for a white girl to date a black boy.”
For years I tried to figure out a way to confront the racism exhibited by my parents without also being disrespectful to my parents. It’s a difficult journey to navigate – you know, what with the whole “let he who is without fault cast the first stone” bit drilled into my head.
And then one Christmas – several years post graduation and marriage and children – my own thirteen year old son did the trick. My mother offered him a certain chocolate-covered, cream-centered candy that a lot of my family had always simply referred to as “ni**er toes.”
My son’s reaction – with a disgusted, intense stare – was like an arrow straight to her heart: “Nana. I. Am. So. Disappointed. In. You.” Each word singularly punctuated to further lodge the blade.
To my knowledge, she has never used that word since. And thus was the beginning of a long, complicated journey of coming to terms with and trying to remove herself from the prejudice history from which she came.
My father comes from a very similar history with his own mother having a penchant for the very same candy. She even referred to said candy by the exact same name.
We’re all still on that long, complicated journey. We. Are. ALL. Still. On. It. I may not use derogatory terms and I have no problem with my daughter dating guys who aren’t white but there are still times when I catch myself … judging.
Judging things I don’t understand. Judging culture that is not mine. And it is then that I remind myself – different is different – but it’s not better or worse.
If only we all accepted each other for who we are, regardless of skin color or sexual orientation or religious affiliations or political leanings. It’s a lesson we all need to learn.
Even when that wake-up call comes from a thirteen year old boy.