Friday, June 01, 2007

She forgot again

I have a co-worker whom I just adore.

On the corporate "food chain" she's very much lower than I am, but as a human being, she's got me beat. She's a single mom of three big kids (one in college, one about to be in college, and one in high school). She had four children, but one died in infancy in a house fire. So it's reasonable to say she's not had an easy life. She has a low-paying job at which she excels, very promising leadership qualities (she's been offered a promotion and turned it down because of the hours), and a beautiful smile and friendly nature that has earned her more than two official corporate recognition awards. Her confidence and obvious affection for people (all people) shines through all she does.

We already know that I'm by far and away a racial minority at my job, right? And that has become less and less noticed as the years have come and gone.

So yes, my co-worker is black.

But what's awesome is that she often forgets that I'm not. The two of us often discuss issues within our department and I've had to remind her, more than once, that I'm white. Each time this happens, she cracks up and tells me that she forgot.

She did it again recently. We were chatting about our kids and I mentioned that my kids were going swimming. She asked if I'd bought them swim caps, and I told her I hadn't. She looked a bit taken aback, and asked if I was worried that the kids' hair would fall out. Then she remembered: my kids are white, and they have "white" (she used the term "good") hair. We discussed the differences in our hair types for a minute (hers is very fragile and breaks just from being combed; mine is thick and lately very curly) and that was that.

There's a controversy (a tempest in a teakettle, if you ask me) in the Unitarian Universalist blogging community right now (click here for a good summary of what's going on). The issue is that at Starr King (one of two UU seminaries in the country), there was a decision to stop using the phrase "brown bag lunch" because it could be construed as racially oppressive.

I think the other bloggers have flogged this one sufficiently. I have little to add, and even less that hasn't already been said very articulately.

But really? If the worst, most oppressive thing going on at Starr King is the use of a potentially-but-not-really racist term, it must be serious Pollyannaland over there. Which is pretty awesome.

Because in the real world, or at least my real world of downtown Memphis, I see real oppression and racism that would probably make these folks' heads spin. And I've learned that censoring my language does nothing to fix things. It's actions. It's attitudes. And sometimes, yes, it's not about using "politically correct" language. Because life is often not politically correct. (And please don't think that I'm somehow condoning the use of the N word or anything like that. But I also don't use the phrase "African-American" very often, because the people I know who fit into that category don't use it.)

So instead of banning phrases that really don't mean anything bad (The paper bag is brown. People sometimes carry lunches from home in such bags. That's all. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Oops, maybe that would be offensive to Cubans. Sorry, Cubans.), maybe these well-intentioned seminarians could do something. Like this one seems to have already done.

Because getting to a point, on an interpersonal level, where color is honestly forgotten, if only for moments, is my aim. I want to forget that I'm white. I want to forget that most of my co-workers are black. Because it really doesn't matter anyway.


Anonymous said...

I know exactly what you mean when you talk about the white/black thing not really being obvious anymore. It's what happens when I've spent time with people who look different than I. Different appearances fade into the background because the personality becomes known.

I am close to getting there with a friend of mine who has a child with Downs' Syndrome. I don't see the child regularly, but since I am slowly accruing a socializing history with her family, her differences are dimming, and I am starting to see more of her individuality surface.

And brown bags? What's the big deal? Hmmm...maybe I'm a baggist.


Carrie said...

I think that people still get offended with the white/black things probably because they can't accept it. It wouldn't be a big problem if both parties would try to be more understanding.

Danni said...

The black/white issue is supposed to be a thing on the past. There wouldn't be any conflict if only people would stop on giving meaning to every details.