Picture this: my cute little 85+ year-old Mom walks into her doctor’s office in suburban D.C. She is bent almost in half with spinal stenosis. With the aid of her three-pronged cane, she scuttles along at high speed, like a little insect. Once she arrives at the reception desk, her head barely clears the window.
The receptionist is black, the nurses are black, the physician’s assistant is black…in summary, she’s the only white face in the room. She has such a strong French/Egyptian accent that it sounds like she just landed in America the day before, though it’s actually been 60 years.
At the reception desk, someone uses the term African -American. My mother’s ears perk up. She asks the receptionist, “Arrre you from Afreeka?”
The receptionist looks up at my mother, amused, “No.”
“Non,” Mom repeats. “Arrre your parrrents from Afreeka?”
“Nooo,” the receptionist answers in a questioning voice. Now, more of the staff gathers behind the receptionist, curious to see where this is going.
“Have you beeeen to Afreeka?”
“So you arrre not Afreekan-Amereekan. I am Afreekan-Amereekan becowse I was born eeen A-geept (translation, Egypt). But I am Amereekan, and I am proud to be Amereekan. I don’t say Afreekan-Amereekan becowse eeet doesn’t matter the colorrr of my skeeen or wherrre I am borrn. I am Amereekan! And you are Amereekan. And you arrre lucky you are not een Afreeka where there eees always war and where Afrreekans make other Afreekans slaves, like een Sudan!”
And do you know what the staff does? They laugh and they nod in agreement, and the receptionist says, “You’re right.”
To put this in context, I’ll tell you that I spent my early years in Savannah. My American father was very involved in the civil rights movement, but my mom’s family was even better: they seemed color-blind. When my grandmother would take me to the park, she would see a cute kid and make a big fuss about how adorable they were, black or white. She spoke no English, but my Dad recruited her to sit at the lunch counter of a drug store with a black woman and her 4-year old daughter…and me. This was when segregation still existed. But no server was going to refuse to serve a distinguished old white lady in front of her grand daughter.
We moved to D.C. when I was in 7th grade. At the time, D.C. was about 80% black (now about 60%). Black men in other parts of America complain about white women being nervous around them…clutching their purses in elevators or crossing the street to avoid them. Of course, you couldn’t possibly do that in a place where Caucasians are the minority, or you’d have to walk down the middle of the street. I’m not scared of any man who’s neatly dressed and polite (you know, like Ted Bundy or OJ Simpson). What I might cross the street to avoid is a bunch of teenagers in pants down to their knees, backward baseball caps, lots of bling, a couple of grills, and who are either overly noisy or overly quiet. Doesn’t matter if they’re Asian, black, white or Latino. But even that look has gone all Justin Bieber, and doesn’t seem so threatening any more.
For the first two years of my college career, I attended the University of Maryland, where all but three out of 14 rooms in my dorm hall were occupied by black women. We partied together, went to mixers together, and hung out in each other’s rooms. When I began to date a black guy, my black friends across the hall frankly explained why they found it offensive for white women to date black men. I listened, but told them I liked the guy and would continue dating him. They sighed and said, okay, but they didn’t approve. Nevertheless, we all continued to be friends.
The biggest racial shock I had in recent years was when I went to pick up my step daughter at her school and couldn’t distinguish her in the crowd of other tall, long-haired blondes. Not much diversity in suburban Denver! As a petite brunette, I’m about as exotic as it gets.
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