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Color Coding

The most concise and compelling deconstruction of “Race in America” I ever personally experienced was a conversation with my then three-year-old first-born daughter. I had picked her up from her day care center in Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis, MO., and noticed immediately that she was subdued, even troubled. I immediately went to my standard invitation to a conversation: “So, how was your day?”

She paused too long, considered, and then said: “Johnny was upset all day; we talked a long time in the sandbox”. Lots of information here: Johnny was one of her good friends, the conversation they had, it appeared, did not include teachers. I waited, then responded. “What was Johnny upset about?”

She paused even longer, sighed the sigh I knew, where she was going to have to explain something to an adult and there were no assurances the adult would understand. “Look at your hand.” I did as directed, and can still picture my right hand at the top of the steering wheel. In a tone of frustration, she rather forcefully blurted out: “They call that white, but it’s not, it’s beige”. Having begun, she continued. “And some people are tan or dark brown, and they call that black, but it’s not!” She had released the tension. Clearly my daughter had graduated from the 32-crayon box to the 64-crayon box, and color clarity was important.

“They do it with teachers too; they call Marcia black!”. She was on a roll, and was now sounding not only frustrated but angry. Marcia, I knew, was the only “black" teacher in the school. She liked Marcia. I sensed she knew something pernicious was afoot. All this from the adults who were teaching her about “colors”.

“Johnny thinks his dad is black and his mom is white; he doesn’t know what he is!” She announced this with intensity and more overt anger. What a mess! I didn’t know Johnny’s parents well, but knew they were an “interracial couple” as we ever so politely then described their then uncommon status. Both her anger and her empathy were palpable.

I don’t remember the rest of the conversation; I was stuck on the deconstruction. I would like to think I came up with a clever metaphorical observation about all 64 crayons were equal and all were simply different colors of crayons, but I know I didn’t. Looking back, I realize that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was at that time less than 10 years old. We were all feeling our way in the dark. In retrospect, I wonder if I asked myself who “they” were. I don’t think I did, though I knew I as part of the “they”. Though I didn’t know it then, this conversation changed forever my personal response to the words “white” and “black”.

I have often wondered about Johnny, how his life unfolded. As my consciousness absorbed more about violence toward “black” men and health care inequities imposed on “black” patients, and indeed the plethora of cultural horrors inflicted on “black” Americans, I now even wonder if he is alive. He would be around 50 years old today. As the George Floyd travesty unfolded, I wondered, if he is alive, what he pondered in his Covid Cave.

“Black people suffered under slavery for 250 years; we have been legally ‘free’ for just fifty.”

~Nikole Hannah-Jones, The 1619 Project, c. 2021


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