Tuesday, March 8, 2016

I'm Not Your Mulatto

Here's a thought: people of color are not our playthings or property.  Sure, we're way past that.  Are we?

About one month ago, my friend and colleague Suzanne and I were getting coffee at La Monarca at the corner of Gower and Sunset in Hollywood.  We hadn't seen each other for quite some time, and as our jobs are quite similar, we had much to chat on (and commiserate!)
Photo: Zazzle.com

An older white woman asks us to watch her things while she goes to the bathroom.  We agreed, but she never went to the bathroom, I think that was just a way to interrupt.  The white woman, we'll call her Edith, says to Suzanne: "you have such an interesting look, what are you?"

Suzanne, smiles, and asks her what she means.  Edith asked if she was South American?

Suzanne tells her, actually, she is mixed race, with African-American and Spanish....but before she can finish explaining that, Edith interrupts, cheerfully, "oh, you're Mulatto."

Both Suzanne and I were stunned to hear that word, and I think it was Suzanne, but she remembers it was me, either way, this was said: "well, we really don't use that anymore..."  But Edith launched into her history lesson at us.  I say at us because it clearly wasn't for us.  But she was kindly, she was nice, she wasn't trying to be rude, she was trying to make conversation and connect.   She spoke intimately about the tones of color on Suzanne's face, her eyebrows, etc.  And she looks at me and asks, "where do your ancestors come from?"

I thought it only fair that I be asked, though I do remember the clear difference that I was asked a question with more respect than what are you, so I said, German, French, and I couldn't remember Dutch, but for some reason I was thinking it was Finnish, so I said that.  (Sidebar: us modern white people sometimes have to ask our parents about ancestry because it's just not usually necessary that we know anything other than white.)

Edith lit up.  "Oh, do you know that Finns are the purest race?"  Which was my cue to interrupt her to say that Suzanne and I only had a little bit of time left to catch up, so Edith nodded and went on her way.

Edith seemed to think she was making friends with us, oblivious to her condescending and insulting demeanor.  I was so moved by Suzanne's grace and patience through the entire ordeal, and was on guard for the moment I thought Edith might ask if she could touch Suzanne's hair.
Photo from onpoint.wbur.org

Before it sounds like I'm arguing about a generational gap, let's move to downtown Atlanta, Georgia, where I was staying at the Airport Hilton as part of a traveling gig with Deana Carter's band just last summer.  Summer is high-time for family reunions, especially in the African-American community.  In fact, this particular weekend, there were four separate families gathered at this one hotel.  Each of the families, I came to learn through conversations hanging out at the bar and the coffee shops, had about 150 members who had traveled in for the events.

At the front desk when I checked in, a woman who was probably 7 or 8 months pregnant, was standing nearby.  A young white woman, probably my age, noticed her, asked her when she was due.  They had a nice exchange of small talk, and then the white woman commented on how fantastic the pregnant woman's Afro looked, and, you guessed it, asked if she could feel it.  The pregnant woman said "no", and she also added, "and just cause I'm so tired of being asked this, you also can't feel my belly."

Here was a moment of awakening.  The white woman recognized connection, as a mother herself, being reminded of how annoyed she was that people thought they could just feel her belly in check-out lines at the grocery store.  And, further, she self-connected it to how inappropriate it was that she tried to feel an Afro.  After I checked in, I walked away and the two of them were laughing together, the white woman having long since apologized.

Other people, no matter how kind and connection-seeking we think we are attempting to be, are never our property or plaything.  And if we cross that line, it is on us to apologize.

Later that morning, one couple, who I thought were married but were actually a brother and a sister, invited me to have breakfast with them.  They explained their particular family history to me.  Their matriarch, who's name was emblazoned on the front of their bright purple t-shirts similar to the one in the photograph above, was a slave.  She had 12 children, and the brother liked to point out, "you know, like the 12 tribes of Israel?"

Those 12 families have managed to stay in contact for over 150 years, committed to coming together ever 2-3 years in a big way.  They appoint regional coordinators whose job it is to keep tabs on all the family members in Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, Atlanta.  They fundraise at churches and through bake sales to make sure every family member who wants to attend, can, regardless of current employment or income.  And this, I came to learn, was almost identical to the other family gatherings going on around me that weekend.

It makes sense, when you remember that an African-American's ancestry has a clear start date.  Well, first a very violent end date, where centuries of bloodlines were severed and thrown into a helter-skelter during the slave trade and the Middle Passage.  My friend Marvin always says, for African-Americans, all roads lead to the South (of the US).  Now, these new sibling friends of mine had fun pointing out that with 150 family members, oh yes, there can be drama, help me Jesus.  But keeping their story alive and keeping the relationships well oiled and maintained, that is something they all believe in.  We white folks must learn to respect and honor this, not just try to be cool by imagining how "with it" we are by thinking we're cool with Afros, we are educated because we have studied racial history and know a thing or two.  This goes for all y'all as well as me.

So, Edith, instead of telling Suzanne about her people's history, why not asking her about her family history?  Could it be that Suzanne has something to teach and offer you?  Here's something she taught me while we talked about this experience, Las Castas, the Spanish Racial Classifications that had all kinds of connotations and degrees of status.  And on the day you interrupted our conversation, Suzanne taught me a bit about patience in the face of indignity.

Peace and blessings,

1 comment:

  1. Oh that takes me back just a few years ago when I was a freshman at MSU . Second semester I had a roommate Rose. Who moved in with my two other roommates. My real first experience of getting to know a person of another color ,,,, and I did ask her if I could touch her Afro ...she taught me a lot !'