Let’s Talk About Race, Baby: They All Look the Same

Last week, I wrote a tiny bit about my experience being a white girl in an African-American neighborhood. When different types of people rub elbows, everyday interactions take on extra significance. I’m going to tell you two interactions.

My daughter, a preschooler at the time, was the only white girl in her ballet class. Previously, my daughter had taken ballet in a more racially mixed class from a teacher named Mrs. Balter over on the other side of town. But why would I drive and fight for parking (always a problem in the city) when I had excellent classes nearby? So I enrolled her in the local, all African-American program.

And so it came to my very worst racial moment. Ever.

The day of the recital, I was running late and my daughter had an injured foot. I wasn’t sure I had the right tights for the costume or that her makeup was right. And had she had enough dinner to make it through the entire show without a meltdown?

I partially pulled over in front of the center, my car partially blocking traffic. Ms. Baker, a teacher at the dance program, stood on the sidewalk, ready to usher my girl inside while I found a parking spot. She bundled my girl out and I rolled down my window, full of gratitude and stress.

“Oh, thank you Ms. Balter,” I cried.

And the universe stood still. A hush descended over the city.

“I’m Ms. Baker,” she told me, pointedly. Ms. Baker knew Ms. Balter. They travelled in the same circles.

It gets worse.

“Oh, oh,” I said, “I’m so sorry…..” I hesitate to write what I said next, but it is a matter of history and nothing can save me now.

I said, “I’m so sorry…she’s the OTHER ONE.”

The words hung in the air like a cartoon quote bubble you wish you could just suck back in.  I would have given a large sum of money for a rewind button.

Ms. Baker drew up and looked down on me from the height of four hundred years of injustice and said, “We all look the same, don’t we?”

I tried to find a hole in which to hide.

When I said “other one,” I meant “other dance teacher.” She heard something else entirely, I’m sure.

I did not then, nor do I now, think that Ms. Baker and Ms. Balter look the same. Ms. Balter bore herself like a ballerina, head up, almost regally, like a younger Phylicia Rashad. Ms. Baker was fiery and passionate with quick movements, like Jennifer Hudson as Effie White in “Dreamgirls.”

But, God help me, they had the same job and similar names. I’m horrible with names. Just ask Sarah and Janice, two white women (who also look nothing alike) I confused for months simply because I met them at the same party.

Just because I’m an idiot doesn’t mean I’m racist.

Yet I know white people are notorious for getting black people confused, lumping them together, not caring enough to see them as individuals. I don’t doubt Ms. Baker had had this happen to her many, many times in her life.

My first reaction was mortification and extreme embarrassment. My second was frustration. As it happened, most of my neighbors were black, my kids’ teachers were primarily black, my pastor was black and my doctor was black. I hadn’t sought out these people in my life, but they were what had come to me living in the city and I had not rejected them because of their color. I wanted to ask Ms. Baker what more she wanted from me. What do I need to do to prove I’m not racist? Or at least that I’m aware of my own biases and race?

I imagine it’s a small part of the frustration an African-American feels when he’s pulled over by the police, shadowed in a store, or passed over for a job for which he feels qualified. What more do I need to do before you don’t see the color of my skin and the tics of my upbringing and just see me?

I never talked with Ms. Baker about the terrible moment. I’m fairly confident she remembers it well. I was never brave enough. (And I’ve changed her name, in case you’re wondering.)

The second elbow-rubbing happened at the drive-through for McDonalds. It was the magical summer when the Nationals had just come to Washington DC. A mediocre team at best, they had caught some of the energy of their newly minted fans and were winning game after game. The city was caught in the blush of new love, completely infatuated with the team.

As the African-American man handed us our food, he noticed my husband’s Nationals cap. They shared a few words of awe and joy over the miraculous wins, and then the man said, “You take care, my brotha.”

It was warm and wonderful and sincere. For a moment, we were all just citizens of the same city, sharing the common ground of a baseball team.

Human interaction doesn’t always happen when you’re on top of your game. Sometimes it happens when you’re doubleparked in traffic, worrying about the cut on your daughter’s foot. Sometimes it happens in the drive through lane. If I’d been thinking more calmly, I would have been able to process my words before I spoke them and avoid the terrible, awful moment with Ms. Baker. On both sides, I think, we need to be aware that there is more – much more – going on in someone’s life than race and give a lot of leeway to each other.

We should bend over backwards to be friendly, hospitable, what people of faith call full of grace. Believing the best of others even when there seems to be evidence to the contrary.

When people with different backgrounds and experiences live in close proximity to each other, there are bound to be frictions, misunderstandings, and downright wrongs. Still, I prefer that to living in separate worlds and never interacting. How else will we ever get to be “brothas”?

*Photo by hoyasmeg on Flickr Commons.

More on Race:

Tara Edelschick writes about the many people who flow in and out of her home and neighborhood reactions.

Kathy Tuan-Maclane writes about the nagging questions of being a minority.

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