I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned that I grew up (mostly) in Spokane, Washington, as in, the east side of Washington State (America’s best kept secret). For the Southerner and the East Coaster, I need to explain a few things. No, it is not rainy there. That’s Seattle. We’re on the other side of the Cascades where the rain shadow effect keeps the seasons pretty well-rounded. In fact, though the winters are long and it isn’t unheard of to have snow on Easter, for the most part, Spokane could boast of having four distinct and nearly perfect seasons.
Also, there are no black people there. Well, there are. Possibly 1,000. Total. And certainly fewer on the North side of town, which is where I lived and went to a small, private, Christian school with one black kid total in my entire 5 years of attendance. He was younger than me and was well known as, “You know, the black kid.”
From whiteville, Washington State I moved to Waco, TX, and more specifically, Baylor University: also predominantly white. It would certainly be a hasty generalization to say that most of the black students were there to play sports, but it also wouldn’t be entirely untrue.
It is an understatement to say that before entering the “real world” I had pretty homogeneous roots. On the other hand, I’ve really never considered myself above or below anyone else for any differences other than intelligence. As a result, I often open my mouth with good intentions, but am operating on the (incorrect) assumption that the rest of the world shares my twisted sense of humor and good naturedness about all things straightforward. Luckily, I am an equal opportunity offender, which in my mind, nulls-and-voids all of the offense anyway. This brings me to a list for the day:
“Things I’ve Said that Could Have Been Considered Racist Comments but Weren’t because I Said Them with Innocence and Love”:
- On the 4th day of class my freshman year in college, I got the opportunity to put a face with a name that had come up enough times for me to remember. Attempting to create some sort of personal connection with this guy, when he said his name and shook my hand, the first thing that came out of my mouth was, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard a lot about you from some upperclassman. (Smiling enthusiastically,) Everyone says you’re like the whitest black guy at Baylor.” Of course I have no idea what this means, but by his fading smile, the what-the-hell-are-you-doing-Claire?-faces of those around me and his immediate reaction, “Who says that?” I realize maybe it wasn’t actually a compliment. I can say with certainty I never spoke to that guy again.
- I use a Coco Butter Swivel Stick as chapstick. If you’ve never seen one I’ll describe it this way: most people think I’m putting glue stick on my lips the first time they see it. At camp however, all the black kids knew exactly what it was. Most of them just wanted to smell it because in their words, “Yeah! My moms uses that stuff.” On one of my first days as a classroom teacher in a racially mixed class of freshman, at some point I whip out the Coco Butter to the unsurprising exclamations of “Are you putting glue on your lips Mrs. Wait?” Without blinking I say casually, “No. This is my Black Lady chapstick.” (In hindsight, this might not have been the best response.) But at the very moment that several students are about to laugh thinking I’m making a racist joke, a 10th grade basketball player (who had failed English 9) sort of stands up in the front of the room, extends his hand and says, “Nah, nah, nah, she’s right. My moms uses that stuff,” and all malicious laughter suddenly turns to nods of agreement with me.
- Fast forward to my final semester of teaching at public school. I am 5 months pregnant with Carter. I have a class of 12 honors sophomore students (by far my best class to date). I believe there were only 4 boys in the class. Two of them were black, one was white, and one was Hispanic. There were two names on my roster that I recognized by reputation (of their 9th grade teachers). One was a girl, the other was a boy with a hyphenated last name. Without knowing what the kid looked like, but simply knowing his last name was hyphenated, I had always pictured him as a white kid in my head. So calling roll the first day of class, I’m looking at the one white boy when I say this other kid’s name. When the “present” comes from the other end of the room, I stop and read the name again. I then look directly at the actual kid and say, “Wait a minute. You’re JHR?” He mutters an awkward but very polite, “Um, yes ma’am?” I then say very matter of factly, “Oh. You’re black. I always thought you were white.” As 22 eyes begin to shift timidly and mouths start to open I quickly recover with, “Oh no no. I don’t mean anything by that. It’s just that, well, how many black kids do you know with hyphenated last names?” To this, my now favorite student of all time smiles, puts his head on his desk, shakes it twice and says, “Actually none. I think this is about to be my favorite class.” **
When he was still my trainer at the wilderness camp, my husband taught me that you can say or do absolutely anything to a kid (in the name of therapy) as long as you have the right relationship with him. I think this is true for all humans. I consider it partially luck and partially genetic that most of my stupidly offensive comments have been taken with a teaspoon of humor and chased with a shot of forgiveness. This is not to say that all such instances have been so easy. But I like to think the same grace will be extended to my own child, as she is already showing signs of a similar genetic disorder. This was fully evidenced when, in line at the grocery store the other day, Eliott stands up in the cart and exclaims (for the entire front of the store to hear) “Mom! Oprah! Look! It’s Oprah! It’s Oprah! At Harris Teeter! Right over THERE!” No need to scan magazine covers. Ecstatically, she’s pointing to the one and only black female working that day.
**Edit: I feel compelled to add here that I wrote a similar version of this very story in the college/scholarship recommendation letter I wrote for this student at the beginning of the year. He assured me that he “worked my letter” in some form, into every application he submitted. He has, to date, been accepted into every college for which he applied (including Brown, Wake Forrest, and Duke), and, among many other awards, is a recipient of the Bill Gates Scholarship. Coincidence?