When I was about 7 years old, my parents were hosting a ministry couple at our house for dinner and I was sent off to play with their daughter, who was a little younger than me. We played Barbies, because I had an extensive collection, but I had no Ken dolls, only my brother’s big GI Joes (which I preferred, because they were way better looking, to my mind). I paired my favorite Barbie (blonde, blue-eyed, with pink streaks in her hair and a guitar) off with the hispanic looking GI Joe, because he was the most handsome (ie. did not have a pained expression or scars on his face) and recommended to her the next-best looking, the black one with a cool scar on his eye for her equally blonde and blue-eyed Barbie. She frowned at the GI Joe and said, “Well, it’s fine to play, and I wish you could in real life, but you know that’s wrong.”
“You know, black people can’t marry white people.”
Seven-year-old me was flabbergasted. “What are you talking about? Yes they can.”
She just looked dubious, but agreed to take the handsome black GI Joe for her Barbie.
It’s been 20 years and I still think about that incident. I don’t remember the girl’s name, or her parents, or anything else, but how shocked I was to hear her say that. I grew up in one of the whitest areas of the country, and only knew a single black person growing up (Suzie, who lived about 6 houses down and let me and my friends come over whenever we pleased, which was often, because she always gave us Tootsie rolls).
This wasn’t a singular incident. I remember a lot more.
-Getting my hair cut when I was about 8, at another neighbor’s house, and overhearing her nonchalantly discussing with her friend how black people were just descendants of white people who’d mated with monkeys.
-A cousin of my mom’s explaining that the pink skin on black people’s hands and feet were because that’s where God held them when he spray painted them.
-Staring dubiously at the black Jesus painting in the lobby of the only black church I’d ever set foot in at age 10 or so, thinking it looked wrong, even though I saw a blonde Jesus painting every week at my church.
Racism is pretty insidious. It gets under the skin of your culture and you don’t even realize it because you’re so permeated in it. And loving black people doesn’t magically make all of that go away. As much as I’m still very-much that little girl aghast at that kid’s comments about my handsome GI Joe, I’ve also struggled with unconscious prejudices and biases.
Even as I became a teenager and moved to California and became friends with people from diverse ethnic backgrounds, I still shied away from the black guys who flirted with me (white dudes never liked me) because black guys “weren’t my type” though I was, evidently, theirs.
I remember when the last census came out in 2010 my mom asking my brother and I, pointedly, “Do you see yourself as white or hispanic?” “White,” we both said. Despite growing up eating yellow rice and black beans, being part Cuban has always been a side-note, a minor exoticism for us.
I went to a college with about 2 whole black students at it. I was dubious of claims of police singling out black drivers until I was in the car with my friend Marlon when he got pulled over and given a thorough once-over for, evidently, just driving around a white girl in a nice neighborhood.
When I started dating my now-husband, I once told him he “sounded white” and didn’t “act black”. I once asked him if watching movies like Lord of the Rings, one of my all-time favorites, ever bothered him because of how extremely white the cast was. I went to a family gathering with him and discovered how uncomfortable it was to sit in a room full of only black people, covered in pictures and figurines and memorabilia only depicting black people and black culture. I asked him on the drive home if that’s what being the only black guy in the room was like. “Pretty much,” he said. For some reason, he still married me.
I worried sometimes that our eventual biracial children might resent or hate me for being white. And he worried they might reject or be ashamed of him for being black. When they pulled our kid out of me, with shock, and just the slightest bit of regret, I saw that he was more pink than brown. I worried that might hurt him. I’ve had to steer the conversation with well-meaning people away from the color of my kid’s skin, as they make comments like, “His coloring is so nice” or “He looks more black when his dad holds him.”
There’s so many more anecdotes and incidents. There’s so much you don’t know because you don’t know it, no matter how well meaning you are. But, in the words of Maya Angelou, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
I’m gonna keep trying to do better. Not just because I married a black man, not just because I have a biracial son. Not just because I have black friends and family. Just because I’m a human being. And sometimes I’m as ashamed of myself as I was of that little girl I was playing Barbies with 20 years ago.