Two White Women Talking

24 02 2012

Two middle-age, white women stood talking.  One was a pre-school educator, the other a mother in a trans-racial family.  The conversation started innocent enough.  The mother was hoping to learn the names of the children in her son’s class.  The teacher was joking about trying to remember them all and running through the list of her own children’s names before hitting on the correct one.  The mother relayed having the same problem then commented that she often also confuses the dog’s name and her son’s name saying that they both have black, curly hair.

When the mother looked down she realized she was standing close to the line that divides a physical observation from a racial stereotype.  She was getting used to being close to this line, but was never entirely comfortable there.

The conversation continued and the teacher commented that it didn’t help with this particular class since so many of the kids looked alike.

Crap.

The mother looked down to see where the line was and felt instantly uncomfortable.

The class was actually very “diverse” including her black son, one very blond girl, one “all-american” brunette, a girl of Hispanic descent, a boy of Mediterranean descent, another brown-haired Caucasian boy, three Chinese-American boys and one Chinese-American girl.

It was clear which kids looked alike to the teacher.

The mother responded, “But they don’t really look that much alike.”

The teacher said, “They all have slanty eyes.”

And then quickly muttered, “Well they aren’t actually slanty.  But they call us round-eyes and we call them slanty eyes.”  Each word was spoken a little quieter than the previous.

At this point the mother was shocked, but also recognized that the teacher’s inside voice had accidentally become her outside voice.  The teacher had lost track of the line.

It seemed to the mother that what started out as a physical description had slipped into what could easily be seen as a racial slur.  The teacher seemed to be reasoning with herself but was speaking her thoughts out-loud.  She seemed to be looking down to make sure she hadn’t crossed the line and was talking herself through the process.  She did not want to be on the wrong side of the line.  She didn’t want anyone else to think she was on the wrong side of the line.  She didn’t even know how she got to the wrong side of the line.

And the mother thought maybe she had accidentally led the teacher up to the line or somehow blurred the line with her own close-to-the-line comment.

The mother was also frantically searching for the line.  Was she on one side of it?  Was the teacher on the other?  If anyone else heard this conversation they would certainly think that neither of these white women even knew there was a line.  Could the mother normalize the conversation and somehow pull them back from the edge?

The mother tried to tell some story from her past about living in a community that had a large Asian population, unlike where she grew up.  And how that helped her start to recognize people’s specific nationalities.

The mother was extra confused because she had wondered herself – is part of the reason she hadn’t learned the kids’ names yet because they were not easily categorized in her brain.  And is part of the reason they were not easily categorized in her brain because so many of them were Asian?   (A double-check later on revealed that she also has a hard time remembering which of the stringy-haired, white girls in her daughter’s class is Emily and which is Emma.)

The truth is being that close to the line, it causes a type of mental vertigo, self-doubt in the mind of a woman who is aware she grew up color-blind only because of her whiteness.  It is easier to be color-blind, or to pretend to be color-blind, then to spend any time near the line where physical characteristics can become racial stereotypes.

The mother wants to get back on her high-horse.  She finds it easiest to see the line from there, at least easiest to see when others have stepped across it.

Some days the mother wants to ride her high-horse as far away from the line as she can get.  She wants to live in the land of the color-blind where everyone isn’t just equal but is the same and no one notices cultural differences or physical similarities.  It is a little boring there because it is hard to celebrate differences and culture if you deny they exist, but it is so safe.  And there is comfort in that fabricated and make-believe safety.

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8 responses

24 02 2012
Kyra

Sorry – “slanty eyes?” That is nowhere NEAR the line. That is far, far away from the line. And the excuse is that “they call us round-eyes and we call them slanty-eyes?” Yeah, and they’re in PRE-K and we’re adults and we know better. I agree, she was speaking her thought aloud, and her thoughts were pretty appalling. Silver lining, at least she realized it.

24 02 2012
Semi-Feral Mama

I am so with you, Kyra. That is why the whole thing was so weird. Normally I would be outraged by her comment, but it was so clear that she used slanty eyes as short-hand, and immediately realized that they didn’t actually have slanty eyes and that wasn’t what she meant and, and, and…. Maybe I am giving her a break because she is my kid’s teacher. But that isn’t how it felt. It felt like she had a “Freudian” slip of sorts and knew she was in a weird spot. Yes, it is a crazy, unacceptable thing to say. I guess that is why this was written in the 3rd person and somewhat vaguely – because it was just so weird.

24 02 2012
Dakota

Great post to explain a place many of us, unfortunately, are very unpracticed at navigating, despite our kids’ beautiful brown skin – I like the use of a physical line that you both keep looking down at to check yourselves against.

Did you read today’s Rage Against the Minivan post? It compliments your post nicely and has a pretty good comment thread going right now too: http://www.rageagainsttheminivan.com/2012/02/time-i-referred-to-black-guy-and-other.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+RAGEagainsttheMINIVAN+%28Rage+Against+The+Minivan%29

24 02 2012
Captain Murdock

Love the post on Rage Against the Minivan today.

And this mom … she sounds like someone I would really like 🙂

24 02 2012
Wendy

Brave, honest post, as I would expect from you. There are lines and there are lines. This is the shit I had to deal with a couple of weeks ago:

http://lilybelles.blogspot.com/2012/02/not-funny-period.html

24 02 2012
Semi-Feral Mama

Great post, Wendy. Thanks for linking. I know I don’t have the answers.

24 02 2012
Cindy

Being in much more diverse environment has brought us much closer to the line. It has been a steep learning curve. Thanks for sharing.

24 02 2012
shannoncl

It’s weird isn’t it. It’s like suddenly a line appears and the earth shakes. I like it. I’m getting to like it so much I sorta do it on purpose. Cause I’m ‘unique’ and have to find ways to entertain myself. We live in a soooo lily white place we can travel hours and still only see white on rice. When I’m (often) looking for where (the heck) my son has meandered (ran) off to- I’ll ask an adult “Have you seen a little brown boy go past here?” … Every. Single. Time. (I swear I couldn’t make this up if I tried) they ask- “What does he look like?” “Umm. He’s BROWN.” “Oh ya”… awkward pause…. “umm. He went over there.”

( going MIA at Et culture camp was a different experience though)

I get the sense, it won’t be long before you are comfortable walking that line and pointing it out to people. You are semi feral after all.

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