I’ve been reading a lot recently about our new “post-racial” world, where we have “transcended race,” where a black man is running for president and white people are actually voting for him. I’m wondering, if we have transcended race so successfully, why are we reading so much about it’s impact on the presidential contest? The black man in question, who also happens to be white, hasn’t played the race card.
Judging from my own experience, we have not transcended race, not by a long shot. I am white, my five year old daughter Brookti is black. It’s frowned upon to live vicariously through your child, and rightly so, but when it comes to their skin-color, it’s impossible not to. Pre-Brookti, I felt fairly anonymous walking down the street in New York City. Walking together, I often feel like the proverbial deer in the headlights. People stare at us (or glare), essentially making non-verbal assumptions–or they make verbal assumptions (or more likely, inappropriate comments).
When I first adopted Brookti, being new at the game, I would often lose my temper. Perhaps my outrage was due to the loss of an unconscious Caucasian sense of entitlement, in this case, the right to walk down the street obliviously. Back then I thought, When I get more accustomed to this, I will learn to turn the other cheek. Nearly four years later, the amount of daily scrutiny we receive still causes me to lose it on occasion.
Like Senator Obama, my daughter is not African-American, but African and American. Contrary to popular opinion, unlike Senator Obama, she is not ‘mixed race’(at least not any more ‘mixed race’ than anyone else in the modern DNA-obsessed world). You may be thinking: How would I be aware of popular opinion? I am aware because I am frequently asked “Is she mixed?” by strangers. Sometimes I am not even asked. Instead I am told.
I was told in no uncertain terms about six months ago when we were walking to pre-school. Brookti, who has loved wigs since her first Halloween, was sporting a blond ponytail wig. Suddenly there is a loud furious voice from behind us: “That child should not be wearing a blond wig! She is half-black and you are denying her blackness!”
Instantly blind with disproportionate rage, I retort (illogically): “How do you know she’s half-black?”
The woman repeats, “She is half-black, you are denying her heritage!”
This ludicrous back and forth continues (with intermittent cursing from me, I confess), showing no sign of abating, until I say, “Get away from us!” at which the woman retorts: “What are you going to do about it?”
Visions of former junior high battles dancing in my head, I’m about to regress to an oldie but goodie, “Meet you after school–reserve your spot in the graveyard!” but I refrain. Instead, I pick up Brookti who is absolutely terrified, screaming bloody murder, and turn my back to shield her. Somehow we reach the end of the block and, for whatever reason, the woman takes off. I’m practically in tears myself, holding a sobbing Brookti, when another woman who has witnessed the scene, comes over to console us, assuring us how nasty and unfair the woman has been.
For the “post-racial” record, both women are African American or African and American or, for all I know, they’re mixed. I didn’t ask nor do I care.
Obviously, my own childish behavior, sinking to this low level na-na-na-na-na exchange, instead of just ignoring the woman, cannot be excused. I can only offer these irrational reasons. Number one, the goddamn blond wig had been a gift from a well meaning white friend living in the aforementioned “post-racial,” dare I say, ‘fairy tale’ world, which leads me to number two. Don’t think I hadn’t anticipated this kind of incident occurring, leading to a long bitter battle with Brookti that very morning pleading with her not to wear the wig, a battle wielded against my better moral judgment because why shouldn’t she wear a yellow wig (it could as easily have been pink, purple or red) since she, at five, has no idea of the political implications of blond wigs and even if she were fifteen, why couldn’t she wear a blond wig? Furthermore, the word ’blond’ had not entered her vocabulary since she’d experienced a long speech delay having arrived in the U.S. at the age of two. Number three, after three years, I was so sick of hearing about the condition of Brookti’s hair which was only serving to create hair ‘issues’ when there were none (and I speak–again–from experience as a dark frizzy haired Jew). And most importantly, number four, how dare this woman attack me when she has no idea who I am or who Brookti is or what our relationship is and more egregiously, how dare she terrorize an innocent child?
Six months later Brookti still talks about the “mean woman,” still asks me “why she was so mean” and is still hesitant about walking on that particular block. And I’m still telling the story to anyone who will listen. Most people do not want to listen. They are quick to change the subject, which leads me to the conclusion that it’s not really ‘cool’ to talk about everyday racism here in New York City–not like it’s cool to go to a benefit for Darfur or discourse on AIDS in Africa.
Which leads me to another conclusion: if we’re so comfortable in our new “post-racial” world, why are we still so uncomfortable talking about today’s racially divided America? Action may speak louder than words, but action has to start somewhere. If we can’t even talk honestly about race, if we pretend racism doesn’t exist, how are we going to take action?
Betsy Berne is the author of the novel Bad Timing (2001) and has written for Vogue, The New Yorker
, and The New York Times Magazine.