Saturday, May 9, 2015

Why are we afraid to mention race?

Ms. Matthews will be Isaac's teacher for summer school but I have
never met her. I was looking at a sea of teachers and students on the playground so I asked the director "Which one is Ms. Matthews?" The director told me that "she has curly hair" so went out on the playground and looked for a teacher with curly hair. A lot of people have curly hair. I went back to the director and said "I can’t find her. Does she have light curly hair or dark curly hair?" "Do you know about how old she is?" The director leaned in quietly and said "Ms. Matthews is African American." It was as if she were afraid to say it. Of course, the fact that Ms. Matthews is black is not her defining feature. She is a summer school teacher and I am sure she is a whole lot of other things as well. But it would have been a whole lot easier for me to find her on the playground if I knew she was black. She was the only one out there. It took me three minutes to find her and introduce her to Isaac after that.

The same thing happened at the pool. I was trying to find Isaac’s swim instructor. When I got there, eight teachers and about 30 kids were in the water. I asked the teenaged guard who “Mike” was and she struggled uncomfortably to figure out a way to describe him. She finally told me he was wearing a hat (they were all wearing hats). The situation was strange enough that I knew exactly what was going on and who “Mike” was. I just asked her “African American guy?” The guard’s eyes went wide with shock. I might as well have slapped Mike across the face. But here is the thing. Mike was the only black guy in the pool. It was very easy to find him with that descriptor. The hat was unhelpful.

I feel more comfortable talking about race now because I have to be. I am a Caucasian woman who adopted a daughter from Ethiopia. I am White and I have a Black child. But at the pool, I am just a mother who is five minutes late to a 30 minute swim lesson. And I am about to go lane-by-lane asking people if they are “Mike”. If Mike were wearing a red shirt, that would be a distinguishing characteristic and there would be no problem. But Mike is not wearing a red shirt. Mike is the only black person in the pool and he has no other visually discernible pool feature so I can’t find him at all.

A person should be allowed to identify however he or she wants to be identified. We also do not know a person’s race just by looking. But it seems like we, as a society, are afraid to mention race and we actually go out of our way to avoid it. It also seems like something my family is going to grow into and live with for a very long time. So look for us at the pool. My daughter is adorable. You can’t miss her. She's the one with the very curly hair.

Related:  Ethiopian Orphanages
Related:   Black hair for people who do not know what they are doing

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