On Saturday we ventured into downtown Charlotte for my daughter’s 10th birthday party. Rather than do a traditional party, we opted to take a group of her friends into town to hit some fountains, museums and trains. This city has grown a lot since we moved here in 2000, and even though we live so close to it, we don’t get down there to mull around as much as we used to. It was a good idea for a birthday party. No bouncy room for us, by God. We’re taking the kids downtown.
Five minutes after we leave our house, we arrive. And we’re immediately reminded that the CIAA basketball tournament finals were taking place in town. People are everywhere. Town is packed. And because the CIAA is an athletic conference consisting of thirteen historically African-American institutions of higher education, most people are black. Despite my daughter having many black boys in her class at school (a couple who are even ‘boyfriends’ – and yes, at 10, you’re allowed to have more than one) there’s just one black girl, who is not at our party, and this was strictly a No Boys Allowed event. So here we are – ten white people, all girls but me, making our way through many, many black people in downtown Charlotte. You could track us from space.
There are two reasons I mention the black thing. First, I don’t say African American. I just don’t. I grew up in a black neighborhood in North Florida. I was white. My friends were black. We didn’t complicate it, and frankly – we didn’t care. Adults seemed to care. And like me, my daughters don’t care either. I’m proud that both our girls are as blind to color bias as two kids can be. From their first day at a preschool, the great First Ward CDC, they’ve been around black people. A lot of black people. And so yesterday didn’t phase them. In fact, it didn’t phase any of the girls in our party. Charlotte’s a very ethnically diverse city – something I’m quite proud of. It makes sense for the CIAA to be here. The other reason I mention how many black people there were in town is to recognize my own prejudice.
At one point, after taking light rail up to Stonewall Street, and after playing at The Green for a while, we made our way over to The Mint Museum where all the girls went into the gift shop and I sat outside uploading pictures to facebook and statuses to Twitter. You know, to share my experience with people I care about. After a few minutes, a man and two children appear near me. The kids were wide-eyed with open mouths, and the man looked a little disoriented. He made his way over to me. We smiled. He started to say something, then put his hand to his chin and took another look around to survey the urban landscape. “Are you lost?” I ask. “It’s ok, I’m a local. What are you trying to find?”
I helped him find the Convention Center from our location, but that’s not important. What’s important is that after I told him I was a local, he said that he was too, but that he got lost in having to park so far away – because of the crowds. When he said this, I felt like a racist for a second. Why would I assume that this man, who was black, was not from Charlotte just because 99% of everyone walking around downtown yesterday was black and probably visiting for the tournament?
I got over this little bit of guilt pretty quickly, and everyone ended up having a great time at the birthday party. Still, this one interaction made me wonder whether it’s just natural to notice things like skin color whether we like it or not, and whether this is a sign that we’re all just a little racist. Black, white, whatever.
Jim Mitchem. Front and center.
7 CommentsLEAVE A COMMENT
Mar 6, 2011
Mar 6, 2011
Jim..love your writing and thoughts…. Dunno.. this doesn’t feel racist to me any more than being in DC in the spring with scads of Japanese tourists wandering around and me helping direct an Asian person mistakenly assuming he is also a tourist. But I appreciate your strong feelings against racism, how you have raised your children and we must speak about this issue…I had hoped by the year 2011 we would be moving toward more compassion for each other and it is because of people like you that I have hope we can.
Mar 6, 2011
It’s great that you were able to reflect on your own possible biases- I think most people aren’t able to do that. I agree that noticing race is completely natural. We notice a person’s age, hair color, how they are dressed and speak, etc., so why pretend that we can’t see skin color? In fact, it bothers me when people say they don’t notice race because my race is just as much a part of who I am (and you are) as is the fact that I am a woman, or 5’4″. To not notice my race is to not notice me. Racism is having negative ideas and taking discriminatory actions based on race, not just noticing that we come in many shades. You drew a conclusion based on race, but not a negative or discriminatory one. We learn, and can only function in society, by putting everything into categories: it’s how our brains work. As long as this categorization doesn’t lead to assigning blanket negative attributes to these categories, it’s not racism. Thanks for this post and for your own reflection.
Mar 7, 2011
Thanks Isabella and Maija. You’re right. I agree, we must see color. Allowing color to foreordain how we think or feel about a person is really the best sign of racial prejudice. My thinking this guy was from out of town, was probably normal, considering he was lost.
Mar 8, 2011
I used to believe (and tell anyone who pretended to listen) that my son was the most color-blind person I knew. As our relationship has deepened, however, I’ve learned my perception was, if not wrong, than at least substantively inaccurate. He is in fact extremely color-conscious, but his grasp of racial difference is nuanced and absolutely devoid of animus.As a kid of probably about the same age as Jim in the photo I took a weekend drawing class at the art museum. I remember sitting next to a black kid and watching with surprise as he carefully shaded in his self-portrait. It’s a shame we weren’t asked to draw each other.As Maija points out to deny a person’s color is to diminish her just as racial stereotyping diminishes her. As a nation, many – though certainly not all – of us have put aside the violence, hatred and at least most of the fear. But by convincing ourselves of our colorblindness we’re not seeing people, just shadows on a wall.
Mar 8, 2011
Mar 10, 2011
Jim. I love you’re writing. I love you’re thinking. I’m not white and trust me you are not racist. I notice skin colour ( I’m english – we add a u). It’s unavoidable, just as I notice height, age and sex. Just being aware that you are aware makes you not racist.I do find you inspirational though and you’re writing deserves a wider audience. There’s only so much ads can do.
My novel – Minor King
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