Tuesday, June 16, 2015
All of this "racial talk" has me thinking about an exchange between my husband, a Russian woman, and myself in early May. The Russian woman is a nurse who had visited our home at least once and sometimes twice weekly between December 2014 and May 2015. She was always pleasant and professional and seemed to take a sincere liking to my husband as she often joked and flirted with him while she administered medical care.
During the five months that she attended to TWH (that wonderful husband),three times she was greeted by houseguests who answered the door for me. Twice the guests were introduced as family members and once as a friend.
Now I know that people sometimes have some trouble determining the races of TWH and me. With almond-colored skin, curly dark hair, light brown eyes, and a thinner nose and lips, often people assume TWH is some sort of Latino/Hispanic specimen. At least they classify him. My milky complexion, green eyes, freckles, and crazy mass of curls are usually met with a "What are you?" that basically lets me know that to them, my looks don't register as definable. All of the guests were black people, and might I add "obviously black." With the exception of the bald guy, all of them have not olive, not tan, but brown skin and coarser textured hair. None of the guests spoke with foreign accents or anything, and each of them interacted with the Russian woman for a few minutes when she asked how they were enjoying their visit, from whence they came, etc.
After five months and at least twenty visits, TWH felt he had a rapport with the nurse and mentioned that he was excited about an upcoming job interview. Without hesitation the nurse remarked, "Oh you'll definitely get it." TWH replied, "I don't know, it's not exactly my field" and the nurse replied, "But you'll get it because of your race." Both TWH and I were dumbfounded and looked at one another in confusion. Then the nurse clarified, "You know, because you speak Spanish. How old were you when you came here? You don't have much of an accent. Was it difficult for you to learn English like it was for me?"
My husband diplomatically explained that he does not, in fact, speak Spanish and that he was born in New Jersey to two black parents whose ancestors had come to America during slavery. The Russian nurse looked perplexed as she stood silently and I could see the gears turning in her head while equations kept being written and upon and erased from an internal chalkboard because her mind simply couldn't make sense of his features and his blackness.
My husband chuckled and said, "Yeah, people often mistake me for Hispanic" in an attempt to put her at ease and she replied, "But you speak so well... and you live here," referring to our home in a sought-after neighborhood in a zip code with little to no crime, manicured landscaping, quiet cul-de-sacs, etc. Next, she turned to me and asked, "Did you know he black when you were dating him? And you didn't mind?" Before I had a chance to respond, TWH laughed and chimed in, "She's black, too."
Now the nurse's expression teetered between shock and disbelief. She made a beeline over to me, pushed up her sleeve, placed her arm next to mine and exclaimed, "But your skin is lighter than mine!" I flatly replied, "Yes" so she brought out the big guns and said, "But you are so pretty and you speak Russian!!!" Because obviously, beauty and the ability to speak Russian are not allowed in the sphere of blackness. And honestly, what were we doing livinng outside the projects?
TWH laughed while I gave her a serious side eye as I've been down this road too many times to be even slightly amused by her shenanigans. Her questions regarding what social programs we used to obtain a mortgage and attend college were met with silence. I did nothing but stand there in front of her stone-faced as she unloaded every black stereotype on us and tried to understand why they didn't fit us. I watched as her eyes finally noticed the photos of brown people on the wall in our entry way in a collage frame that says "Family is a Blessing" and the African wall hangings, wood carvings, masks, candleholders, etc. that adorn our home.
The nurse didn't say much else as she finished her work and packed up her supplies while the tension hung thick and foreboding in the air. As I retreated to the kitchen and made a cup of coffee I heard her wish my husband good luck in his interview. I felt better, greatly relieved. I hadn't had to go there today. Somehow, she just got it, realized the error of her ways, and silently vowed not to make that same mistake again. Then, unfortunately, she added, "You'll DEFINITELY get the job now if you tell them you're black. You are so lucky, black people get all of the good jobs."
And this, my friends, is why we can't have nice things. Because despite having to earn them, people will automatically assume that we obtained them with our Affirmative Action" cards given out with our larger reparations packet... It's found in the front of the packet — behind the coupons for Kool Aid, but on top of the get out of jail free cards.