The Partially Color-Blind Librarian

29 03 2011

Our normal routine includes a Tuesday morning visit to the library.  I have posted about that experience before here and here. I really love the library, but I have to be on my game to keep my kids in the building and on the same floor as me, never mind stopping them from pulling books off the shelves.   I do make a valiant effort to stop the book de-shelving.  And, most importantly, I scold them extra loud if the grumpy re-shelving volunteer is around, so she knows I respect her work.

Today I thought about skipping this weekly excursion.  I am not feeling well, and the kids have both been on crack high-strung lately.  I just wasn’t sure we could make it a positive experience.  Then I talked to my friend A.  She said they were definitely going to be there.  I knew it would be great to hoist PJ off on see her.  So I decided to hope for the best but take the Ergo and stroller in case I had to strap anybody down.

It is spring break here so the library was particularly crowded and story time was canceled.  But, for the most part, we were doing okay.  We hung out by the Children’s Librarian’s desk for awhile and played with the magnet board.  Of course, Little Dude kept running over to push the elevator button, but in general things were fine.

A arrived and I got to spend some one-on-one time with Little Dude, while PJ used the computer with A and her daughter E.  Eventually I was overwhelmed by responsible for both of my own kids, when Little Dude said, “Water” and ran off towards the fountain.  I kept an eye on PJ while I slowly followed Little Dude.  Yes, it is a big place.  A big, public place, but I knew exactly where he was headed.

When I got there a couple moments later, he was nowhere to be found.  I tried not to panic, but I didn’t see him as I started to glance around.  One of the librarians saw the look in my eyes and realized what was happening.  She quickly started to help me search, while enlisting other librarians’ for help.  As she asked for their assistance she kept describing Little Dude, “He is about this tall, with a red shirt on.”  A tiny part of my brain registered that I was impressed that she remembered the color of his shirt since we hadn’t been anywhere near her in at least 30 minutes, but the other part of me was like… that isn’t enough information.

We were both moving swiftly in different directions, she would say to another librarian, “He is this tall, wearing a red shirt.”  And I would yell out, “And he’s black.  With a birthmark.”  Like in all panic situations, my brain did the slow-down thing.  I had time to think, “Should I call him brown?  Should I call him Black?  Should I describe his hair?”

“Why isn’t she really describing him?”

A couple of minutes later I found him.  He had managed to open the restroom door and was filling the toilet bowl with paper.  In the past he could not open the doors himself, although I have seen him try.  The restroom is right next to the drinking fountain and if I had not panicked when I didn’t see him initially, I probably would have opened the door.

All was well, but then again, all was strange.  Our library seems to fairly represent our community – diverse for a Midwestern/southern town of 100,000 people.  We are never the “only” transracial family there.  Still, if I saw a panicked pink mama looking for her son, I probably would not immediately recognize the small Ethiopian as being the “missing” child.  Especially since there was NO chance he was upset or acting lost.

It was interesting that this librarian was so hesitant to describe his color, or even his hair.  If he hadn’t turned up quickly we would have had a sea of people searching for a toddler in a red shirt.  How many blond kids would have been stopped?

I guess she is color-blind.  The kind of color blind that can see shirt color but not skin color.  So many of us have been taught to be color-blind.  So many of us are so afraid; afraid to offend, afraid to look racist, afraid to reveal our naivety, afraid to reveal the fact that we actually do notice color.

Today I was afraid.  Afraid I lost my son.  My brown son.  My black son.  You know, the one with a birthmark.  Sometimes he wears a red shirt.

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10 responses

29 03 2011
Erin

I’ve been wanting to talk to you about this subject… being color blind vs…, I dunno, giving color respect, recognition? And how? Colors carry such baggage these days. I’m thinking, in particular, of a little Sunday School song I grew up with (bear with me, K): “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red, brown, yellow, black or white. They are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” I LOVE the sentiment of that song and am just befuddled that it’s not considered PC in some circles.
What’s your take on it?

30 03 2011
Semi-Feral Mama

Erin,
I am hoping others respond because one of the points of my post was supposed to be – I really do not have this stuff figured out.
That song does creep me out, and not in an agnostic way. It sounds patronizing at the very least. A little like saying, “I can’t be racist, I have a black friend.” My guess is if you say “Jesus loves the little children” that should already imply everyone – why would you have to name them by color? Also, I think Red and Yellow are extremely offensive to Native Americans and Asians – but I could be wrong. And, of course, white and black are races (sort of), not colors. Very few people are actually “white.” So here you are categorizing by both skin color and by race – things that are not equal. And, in the end, it has been proven biologically that race isn’t a real thing. Also, what about the olive and tan people, doesn’t Jesus love them?
Maybe I will do a whole post about the song and see if we get feedback that way.
I remember being super confused in a Native-American History class once because everybody seemed to be in agreement that something said (not by me, thankfully) was the STUPIDEST, least PC thing ever. And I kept thinking, “huh?”

31 03 2011
claudia

yeah, we used to sing that song at sunday school! Not so keen on it now, for the reasons you outlined. I’d personally be a lot happier if it said ‘pink and light brown and medium brown and dark brown, they are precious in his sight’ but I guess it doesn’t scan so well 🙂

Thsi really is sucha tricky one. It’s so ingrained that colourblind = right, even when we KNOW that is stupid, that I’m hardly surprised the librarian dropped the ball on this one. But those taboos tell us a lot about just how messed up our society still is about race. Sigh.

29 03 2011
Meg

great post and I really wonder what/if the librarian was making a conscious effort or not when describing that little boy in the red shirt. What’s the right (aka PC) thing to do in that moment? Great example. So happy Little Dude was safe and sound!

30 03 2011
Liz

I had a similar experience last summer, except I was the one who wasn’t sure how to handle color…I briefly lost track of Elfe at the farmers’ market, and when someone offered to help me look for her if I told her what Elfe looked like, I froze – should I say she’s black? she’s brown? she’s Ethiopian, or she has curly hair – those seemed like more PC ways to get the point across that she’s a different color than I am! I’ve worked hard since then to get over the feeling that describing a person’s color is somehow wrong or racist, but it’s definitely something that a lot of people have been taught to feel.

30 03 2011
rebekah

It is a conundrum. Especially when you really need people to know that your son is black! I bet anything the librarian hoped that red shirt and this tall was enough information for anyone – she surely felt confused about what to say.

30 03 2011
Shonda

What? Little Dude is black? I hadn’t noticed because I’m all accepting and love everyone the same like that 😉 J/k. I do feel for the lady. I’m sure she was at a loss how to describe him without offending. LOVE the book “I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla” for things like this. If we’re afraid to talk about race then we make it a taboo subject and unknowingly imply there’s something wrong with skin different than our own. I’m sure I just butchered her point, so you should go read if if you haven’t already.

And, thanks for commenting on my blog (and trying four times to do so).

30 03 2011
il panettiere...

The fear thing. It stalls folks out.

Little Dude needs one of those key chains attached to him- the ones that beep when you are trying to locate your missing keys. Hmmm. I don’t even know if those exist. But if they do, send one my way- I’m just waiting for this to happen to me.

30 03 2011
Kate

When I was in college, my boyfriend was mugged. When his roommate and I got to the hospital, the staff insisted my boyfriend wasn’t there. His info wasn’t in the system and they hadn’t seen him. I was frantic. When they finally let us into the ER to check, there he was, half-conscious in a hospital bed, still bloody and all alone. I was so mad — the staff had to have known about him because they checked him out. But they were *sure* they hadn’t seen *my* boyfriend — who must be white like me. I guess that’s outright racism as opposed to over-correcting to colorblindness, but your post brought the experience back vividly for me.

2 04 2011
Scooping it Up

I have been thinking about this a lot, because I am positive that my Habesha son is going to get lost a lot this year. He is a runner, he is fast, and I have three freaking other little kids. And I can’t put a leashy monkey back pack on a black child for a whole HOST of reasons, ya know.

I was thinking he needs a bracelet. One of tose metal tag bracelets that instead of saying “I am allergic to penicilin” says “My mom’s name is Staci and she isn’t brown like me. If you see the frantic white woman screaming “Tsega” that is my mom.”

Because if he gets lost, no, when, no one will know he’s my child. It scares the crap out of me.

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