I went to a frozen yogurt place today after work. A woman walked in with two young girls. I’m not good at guessing ages, but I’d guess they were somewhere between the ages of nine and twelve.
Here’s the part that I never would have mentioned in the story before. The woman and one of the girls were black.
My parents like to tell the story of the first time they met with my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. H. Mrs. H was a remarkable force in education. She was a no-nonsense educator with a dry sense of humor. I used to come home and talk about Mrs. H nonstop after school.
I never mentioned she was black. My parents didn’t know until they met her on Open House night for the first time. They tell this story with both a sense of surprise and pride. Surprised it didn’t occur to me to mention to them that my teacher was black, and proud that they’d managed to raise a kid in a whitewashed neighborhood that didn’t think her blackness was material information in response to “how was your day?”
As far as what happened in the frozen yogurt shop this afternoon, the color of their skin is not material. Except…maybe it was.
So, they walk in just ahead of me and we’re kind of moving around each other to take sample tastes of the different flavors. The girls were fond of Cake Batter while I was all over Peanut Butter Cup and Mudslide. I smiled and waited patiently as they made their selections.
One of the girls (the black one) went to try the special edition “Ice Age” flavor and the machine squirted out blue liquid. It got a little messy and she was a little shocked.
“All I did was pull the lever down and it splattered,” she said to nobody in particular. Her mom was a few machines down, filling up her cup with Vanilla Snow.
“Yeah, it sure did,” I responded to her. “Here, let me grab you some napkins.”
And I did. She thanked me.
Then she turned around again and, almost with a tone of surprise, added “You’re really nice.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“And really pretty,” she added.
Wasn’t expecting that. “Thank you,” I said.
The other girl turned around and nodded. “Yeah, I really like your shirt, too.”
“Wow,” I said to them both. “You’re both really nice, too!”
Took them a little longer to get rung up than me, so I was already sitting down and eating when they were heading out the door. I looked up and smiled and waved bye to the girls, and offered the mom that was with them a big smile.
“Have a great afternoon!” she told me. And it was sincere. Not just a bunch of words, but I felt like she was sincerely wishing me a great afternoon.
“You too!” and I meant it.
A few things to note. I grew up with a Mexican nanny who took care of my brother and me while our parents worked long retail hours in their furniture store. She lived with us, along with her two kids. Each of her kids had different fathers, so one was very dark skinned, one was lighter skinned, and my brother and I were both pale, blonde haired and blue-eyed.
She used to take us all out on errands or to McDonalds or to the movies, and whenever people would ask which ones were hers, she’d respond “All of them.”
We were raised as a family. They’re my two extra brothers. My parents paid their way through the same private school my brother and I went to. They had all the privileges of being raised in an upper-middle class suburban environment, but they still faced certain prejudices based on their names and the way they looked.
So, when I saw this woman with the two girls, I consciously made the decision to not assume ANYTHING about them. For all I knew, she could have adopted the two of them and they were sisters. The whiteness and blackness of the girls did not dictate their relationship to each other nor the woman who was with them.
However, during the time that she was paying for their yogurts, she talked to the white girl about whether her parents let her put that many toppings in her yogurt when they went out, so….y’know. Turns out the conclusion I might have jumped to would have been the correct one.
Ok, so I started thinking. I feel like the #BlackLivesMatter movement has made me more aware of my interactions with (the admittedly few) black people I run into. It’s not that I wouldn’t have offered any other little girl a napkin under the circumstances, but I do feel like I was making a conscious effort to smile and be friendly because of what I’ve been reading and seeing in the news lately.
Similarly, my understanding of trans and gender issues grew exponentially when I became close with a friend of mine who speaks eloquently on eir experience as a gender queer individual. I’ve found myself noticing when I’m using binary references to gender, and in my writing, have made a conscious effort to move away from saying “men and women” and toward saying “people.”
I’ve never really had a history of treating people differently because of their color, sexuality, or gender identification. I think, in fact, it’d be more accurate to say I treated them with indifference. No better and no worse than anybody else I’d run into during the course of a day. I treated them the same as I’d treat the next stranger who walked past me.
Something else I’ve managed to finally understand through many of the writings I’ve read and conversations I’ve had is the concept of “privilege.”
I’ve got lots of them. I’m white-looking. I’m educated. I come from a tight-knit nuclear family of means. Even being “pretty” is itself a privilege. I might even say I have geographical privilege, because where I live, people tend to be more liberal, multi-cultural, and accepting – so my latina/jewish background never really had much of a negative effect on me.
Sometimes people talk of privilege with disdain, so I understand why people feel defensive about their privileges. Like, it’s not my fault that I was born white(ish). Not my fault I was born into a successfully entrepreneurial family. I don’t like feeling guilty about my privileges.
But I do understand now that these same privileges inherently mean I do not fully comprehend what it’s like to be hungry, or poor, or disenfranchised. I don’t understand what it’s like to be hated for loving who you love or looking the way you look. I can sympathize. I can validate. I can try to understand.
But I don’t know.
What the #BlackLivesMatter movement has done is opened my eyes to how similar experiences differ from one person to the next. When I get pulled over for a traffic violation, I usually know exactly what I did and I’m not too concerned about my physical safety. I have the privilege to be annoyed, rather than frightened.
I think what #BlackLivesMatter and similar movements for LGBTQ rights has taught me is that my indifference is not a virtue. What happened this afternoon in the yogurt shop was that I made an extra effort to be kind to a fellow human being, because in my head all I could think was “her life matters.”
And her response? Telling me that I’m really nice? That really touched me.
She made me feel like my life mattered, too.