Nearly a week after the verdict in the case was handed down, our president, our first African-American President finally spoke. He suggested that we all consider whether we are “wringing as much bias out of myself as I can; am I judging people, as much as I can, not based on the color of their skin but the content of their character?” I’d like to think I’m color blind. Actually, only days before the verdict, my better half and I were perusing a sales flier. One of the products was a photo finishing package. The images were of a lovely bride in full color, black and white, and a sepia finish that highlighted the brilliant bouquet of flowers she carried. The flowers caught my eye most. Yet as I was considering like or dislike of the focus on the flowers, said better half spoke up remarking, “Now that’s something you don’t see every day.”
I didn’t quite get his meaning, so I asked. His response? “The bride in the photos isn’t a white girl.” Well, he was certainly right, but I was genuinely shocked because he himself is a “person of color”. (I’m being deliberately generic here so as not to blatantly advertise who we are.) Every now and then he comes out with some similar statement that sets me back. I usually don’t make much of it, but this time–perhaps sensitive to current events–I couldn’t let it go.
“You know,” I replied slightly indignant but trying to play it lightly, “I don’t get you. Every so often you really shock me with stuff like this. I didn’t even pay attention to the complexion of the bride. I was more interested in the photo editing and the flowers.”
At that, he looked at me and said, “I know. That’s one of the reasons I love you. Because you really are color blind.” It was sort of a squishy-lovey moment. Who doesn’t like to hear their loved ones point out their best qualities? For a waspy, white girl from the suburbs I can’t help think it high praise. I’m proud of my own mother for teaching me to be that way, and I know my own daughter is learning to be the same.
As I’ve mentioned, I worked for years as a visiting nurse. Quite a lot of that time was actually spent in well known inner city neighborhoods in northern New Jersey. My colleagues, my supervisors, and my patients came from every ethnicity you could imagine. I saw men and women in some of the most distressed neighborhoods, where their family members came out to the stoop to see me in and keep an eye on my car. I was welcomed into homes where Indian families insisted I sit and have chai. (Believe me when I say that the fresh, homemade version is worlds better than the packaged, powdered stuff from the supermarket.) I took off my shoes at the door, and cared for patients while in my socks out of respect for families who did the same by tradition.
I’m sad to say I’ve also visited folks in upper middle-class McMansions where I’ve been told to “use the service entrance next time.” Given the choice, I know I’d rather visit those who welcome me for my kindness, passion, healing, and skill than those who see me as just another glorified servant.
When an acquaintance made a remark about the “typical American family,” I went on quite the little rant. What, precisely is “typical” in a country known as a melting pot? I detailed the typical nature of one family I know whose members include single parents, remarried parents with stepchildren, Black, Asian, Western European, Hispanic, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and one divorced mom whose second marriage was to a woman. I think that pretty much encompasses just about everyone. There are a few exceptions in that particular ethnic stew, but not many.
And then, the President spoke, giving a few examples of embarrassing experiences common to young black men such as he had once been. Indeed, he noted having been the object of a few of those. He spoke of being followed while shopping in a department store, hearing the click of car doors locking as they cross a street, or stepping into an elevator only to see women nervously clutch their purses a little bit tighter. It was the door lock clicks that got to me. I’ve worked in some truly sketchy neighborhoods, but I wonder if that is really an excuse for hitting the door latch. I stop to ponder if it is possible for me to wring just a little bit more bias out of myself.