the tale of belonging
Posted: January 23, 2000
The boy came to the man and sat down beside him. "Tell me a story, Scriptor."
I have, my entire life, had to deal with people saying, "Gee, you know, for a while I forgot you were black."
They mean it as a compliment, of course.
The problem is, it comes out sounding like, "Gee, for a while there, I thought of you as equal. And then I remembered you weren't."
Yes, I do know that nobody means it quite that way.
They just don't hear it from this side of the culture divide.
I must admit, I never quite know how to handle it. I mean, in one way, I understand how they mean it. They mean that they were considering what I was saying and not considering any sort of racial aspect to it, not thinking that this might have affected anything I was saying. Which was nice, in a way, but at the same time, it meant that they weren't seeing me. I mean, on a purely physical level, it meant that they somehow wiped out six feet plus of dark brown skin. I somehow became just a voice, while I was standing in front of them. It's like I became invisible, somehow.
And, of course, it also means that the rest of the time, it does somehow go through the "oh, yes, he's black" filter. The interesting thing is that nobody notices when the filter stops functioning--they only notice when I say something that makes it kick in again.
I must admit, the first time that happened, I probably didn't handle it well. I spent the next several weeks quite consciously inserting "black" references into the conversation. It was a relationship where it mattered that I knew that he saw me and not someone else. Of course I was also much younger at the time, and much less secure in myself. (Yeah, like I'm just a fount of self-confidence now!) Talking about Jesse Jackson's political positions (may have good ideas, but I dislike him intensely--a purely personal reaction, I admit) and racial politics in Chicago (Harold Washington was still mayor then, and the Council Wars were truly stunning for someone not raised here--the only thing missing was actual gunplay) and any other issues. I mean, they were real issues, things we'd normally have batted around anyway; I just took lines of discussion I wouldn't normally have taken. Not false ones, not things I didn't believe, just angles that I didn't normally use.
But still ....
Of course, more overt things happen, as well. Not just the name-calling and things like that. Things that happen in contexts you don't expect.
During my first solo desk shift in my first job as a professional librarian, this professor comes in and asks for the "red book". Now, understand: I didn't know who he was or what discipline he came from. In the biomedical field, there are SEVERAL things called "the red book". Books in nursing, in internal medicine, in pediatrics, and in pharmacy.
And he couldn't remember the actual name of the book. He'd never needed it; he'd always referred to it as the "red book", and the other librarians, being more experienced, knew what he wanted.
I told him that I was new, and that our catalog didn't list anything under "the red book" (although, in fact, that was changed later). He'd need to give me more information. He, of course, got frustrated, because I was supposed to magically know what he wanted. So he asked if he could see a librarian.
Not another librarian, which would have been a different request, but A librarian.
Well, OK, fair enough. We didn't wear name tags, and we did have nonprofessionals who sometimes staffed the desk. No reason for him to know offhand that I was a librarian. So I told him that I was, in fact, a librarian, but that I would call back to the office to see if anyone else could help him. Unfortunately, nobody else was around at that moment. I told him so, and then again asked if he had any more information about the specific book.
He then said, "You know a librarian has a professional degree, right?"
Being as charitable as I can, I can think of no reason he would have assumed that I didn't know what I was talking about when I said I was a librarian. But I was in public, and I was damned if I'd stoop to his level. So I just said, "Yes, I know."
He then said, "So you're sure you're a librarian."
He very nearly ate a computer at that point. But I just smiled real hard and said, "Yes."
Of course, it's entirely possible that he meant that anyone as clearly incompetent as I was couldn't possibly be a librarian.
But it didn't come across that way. It may be that I don't possess the filters to let it come across that way. I've never had anything say something like that to me and not mean it as some sort of racial insult. This society being what it is, that's the first filter that some insults hit.
To almost completely misquote a Bujold novel, It is thoroughly impossible that those filters not be there, at least on some level.
Part of what set this little bomb off was seeing an episode of Linc's in which, to everyone's horror, a white person discovers that he is, in fact, part black. Seeing that merely being perceived as black can be considered such an awful event, even briefly. That it can be something that anyone would need to hide, that you could be blackmailed over that.
But of course, you could. In this country, today, at the right place, the right time, you could.
Researchers conducted a study on race and attitudes a few years ago. They asked a group of white students if they were to wake up and discover themselves to have become black, what would they consider to be reasonable compensation?
Most thought they would think that five million dollars would be reasonable compensation for the loss of their whiteness.
Consider that. Skin color alone would be worth five million dollars. People somehow conceive that skin color has monetary value.
Consider. Because they conceive it this way, it does.
I don't know. It seems that something as inalienable and unchangeable as the color of your skin shouldn't be seen as a defect, as something requiring compensation.
Just life in these united states, of course.
You want to know the flip side? The wondrous irony of life, the universe, and everything?
My mother was well educated. Middle-class, more or less. Two collegiate degrees.
My aunt has a masters in nursing.
My grandmother went to college.
My uncle went to college; he's only a few hours short of two different degrees.
My great-aunt had a masters in education, in a day in which black women did NOT get that type of education.
Her husband had a masters of divinity.
What, you might be wondering, does this have to do with anything?
Well .... as you can see, education was highly prized in our family. And the one thing that I was always taught was that I could not sound ignorant. I could not give people any chance to think that I didn't know what I was talking about. It was a weakness that would be exploited by someone.
And now, in this wonderfully stratified and segregated society, this means that I don't sound right to anyone.
Many people, it seems, have a slot that educated blacks go into. It's the "not-black" slot.
And, in the wonderful ways of American society, this is an equal opportunity slot. Blacks have it, whites have it--for all I know, Hispanics and Asians and Native Americans have it, as well. When you don't fit into certain preconceptions--preconceptions that people may not even realize that they have--you go into the "Not" slot.
The problem is, there's no way out of the "Not" slot. The people whose interests you may share by virtue of education see you as Not-black and not-white--except, of course, in those moments when you are very black indeed. The people who's skin color you share, with whom you were brought up, see you as Not-black-enough and a white-wannabe. The "Not" slot has a flipside, always, you see.
If there is a way out of the "Not" slot, I haven't found it yet. The only thing you can do is to find other people to share the "Not" slot with you. And there are several of us out there; it's just hard to find each other sometimes.
But sometimes it seems a very sad thing, that the group to belong to is a group of exiles.
You know, writing this, I kept having the urge to apologize. Apologize--to whom, I don't know--for feeling like this. For letting something as insignificant as a television show bring all this bile out into the open. After all, it's not nice. It's not light. It's not pretty. I don't offer any solutions--as long as we have the class and racial divides (especially the class divides), I can't think of any. Yes, I think things are better, but I don't think they're going to be "good" for a very long time.
And then I decided to take the Karen Williams route out and say, "fuck it." After all, this is the way I'm feeling right now. This isn't a pity party, after all. It's the way things are. And let's face it: as blacks in this society go, I've got damn little to complain about. I managed to get through most of the crisis years without having any contact with the police/prison/parole system. (I will NEVER call it the justice system.) For a black male in this country, that's a fairly significant achievement. I managed to get not only a college education, but a grad school education. For anyone in this country, that's pretty rare. I make a good living. If the "Not" slot is the price to pay, then that's the price to pay. Maybe at some point I can do something to make the "Not" slot go away, or at least be less restrictive for those who come after me.
So. No apology. Not for this.
Even better, let that insignificant television show have its last word:
The boy frowned as the man closed the book. "So what is the moral of the story, Scriptor? Will the man ever be happy? Will he ever belong?"
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