Yesterday I stopped at Tulie, a wonderful bakery in SLC, to pick up a few loaves of banana bread for my neighbors. They have endured the hideous PODS in front of our house for the past week so I figured it would be nice to express some gratitude. While I was there I chatted with the barista, a lovely guy from Texas, who is one of the few persons of color I see on a regular basis. I asked him if I should still give bread to the neighbors who called parking enforcement on us. His response, “F**k them!” I love him. I bought the grumpy couple across the street a loaf anyway.
Behind me in line was a friend, a pulmonologist. She was in her scrubs, pager clipped on, so I figured she only had a few minutes, but we ended up talking for a while. I told her we were moving to Toronto, and that we were looking forward to living in a more diverse city. She quietly nodded. Our conversation then steered to updates on our close-in-age kids, vacations, summer camps, etc. She mentioned that she was moving all three of hers from one school to another in the fall: private to public. I asked her what prompted the change, and she hesitated. “Well,” she said, almost reluctantly. “We felt like they were often excluded from social engagements with classmates.” I watched tears gather in the corners of her eyes. While both the private school and the public one she mentioned are in progressive neighborhoods of Salt Lake, I can’t say that I was surprised—although this did not in any way remedy the sickness I felt. She explained that in addition to her children being repeatedly left out, they were also often asked by other kids, “what are you?” Tears were streaming down her face. We embraced in the bakery for several seconds before she grabbed my arms and pulled back. In her eyes I saw such utter and complete sadness.
My friend is Indian-American and her husband is Mexican-American. She calls her children, “of mixed race.” I have never been asked in my life, “what are you?” I’ve been asked about my heritage. A coded word that denotes: you’re white, so tell me about your nuanced European lineage. When someone asks where I’m from, they’re asking which city or state I was born in. No one is ever trying to “figure me out” or identify what kind of “foreigner” I am. I don’t think that people’s questions are necessarily coming from a mentality of overt racism, but there’s an identification of “otherness” when we demonstrate a desire to make meaning of someone’s “other” identity.
My writing mentor describes herself as being able to blend into many cultures. She loves it when people embrace her as one of theirs, but she feels offended when someone is trying to “make meaning of her.” Often, this is done in a condemnatory way. She can be “identified” and written off in the blink of an eye. While being a woman can certainly lend itself to being easily written off, there is a collective narrative from early America through #metoo that provides white women, in particular, with the resources and, honestly, jurisprudence, to take aim and fire back. Does the woman of color have the same archives of social, historical and political power? She does not—despite the fact that among our earliest activists were valiant women like Sojourner Truth.
Regardless of the intention of her kids’ classmates, what my friend experienced (experiences) delineates a certain cultural and social narrative that remains scattered and undefined. We talk to our kids about celebrating difference, but are we simply amplifying the seed of separatism? I don’t know, but it’s something that Mark and I talk about a lot, especially as our moves have taken us to predominantly white, albeit liberal, places: Missoula, Portland, Vermont, and Salt Lake City.
I believe the adage, listen more and talk less, is spot on. I gave my friend the space to say, I don’t want my kids to feel hurt anymore. Again, I’m not patting myself on the back. I should probably just shut the hell up more often. In our schools, in our homes, and in our culture, how do we make inclusion the focus? How can we nurture origins of culture and heritage without abetting patterns of ignorance? I’m all ears.