Real Talk

It Isn’t Even About That Conversation At The Library

This has been a rough week.

I had two nights of serious insomnia this week while trying to wrap my mind around this deeply entrenched mess of systemic racism, people in power pretending at governing adding fuel to the fire, gun safety, people safety… It’s too much for me a lot of the time and it keeps me awake. I don’t just see the news. I feel the news.

I told you about it on Instagram on Monday and Tuesday. And I was scared to tell you. I’m supposed to be that happy mom. It is my handle and my blog name. It’s not called that heavy mom. But things get heavy for me sometimes, that’s why I started this journey to begin with. So I shared it with you, trusting that you have heavy days too and wouldn’t mind if I shared one with you. And I was blown away by your thoughtful and warm comments. I can’t tell you how your kind words, that I have no doubt you chose carefully, meant to me. Thank you for taking that time and consideration.

And by Wednesday I decided to be happy again. “I need to block that noise out and concentrate on what is near me and what I CAN do. My family– raise kind and conscious humans; my business — keep celebrating diversity in the prints I offer. I’ve got this. Happy!”

But the problem is that I don’t get to choose to block out the news or avoid what troubles me. Because my skin color is the difference that troubles so many. I’m a walking problem for racists and well-meaning folks alike. And Wednesday afternoon, as I was trying to grab a few books for my kids from the library and get home to finish making dinner for my family, a racially-weird conversation was thrust upon me.

Screen Shot 2018-03-15 at 2.55.47 PM.png
The conversation as I remember it and shared on FB last night.

It was hardly the most offensive or personally disturbing encounter I’ve had, not even close. But insomnia + the end of the day + already trying to pretend some emotional stability after watching the gun safety senate hearing, watching our children walk out of schools nationwide begging to be safe at school, it was too much.

And I’m not even mad at the person who asked me if my last name (Free Man) is a REAL ex-slave name. She’s a nice person. She checks books out for me without scanning my card because it’s a small town library and I’m there a lot. She has no idea what it feels like to be me on the other side of that conversation. She has no idea about the emotional baggage I was already carrying to her counter along with those books — baggage from that day, from the 30-some years of life I spent being reminded that I’m less than, not always welcome, different, other.

When it all came down to it, I was angry and sad that that conversation was going to stick with me on the car ride home, while I made dinner, while I ate that warm and spicy curry I had been previously anticipating just sinking into the comfort of. I was sad that I was going to have to perform happiness for my kids until bedtime and that I had an even more exhausting evening ahead of me instead of the relaxing one I had designed.

Because my skin color is the difference that troubles so many. I'm a walking problem for racists and well-meaning folks alike.

My otherness, an otherness I ALWAYS feel (and usually comfortably feel to be honest), felt so expansive in that moment because I can’t fully describe that scenario to anyone close to me. Not my husband who would love to understand, but knows he can’t and hugs me and repeats that he’s “so sorry,” wishing that he could just “so sorry” it away while knowing he can’t at all.

He can’t imagine what it is to walk around in this skin. This “former slave” skin. Light enough to be approachable, dark enough to be less than, here for your entertainment and your curiosity. This “freed slave” skin. Dark enough to be all black to you. Not black enough to be black to you. Definitely Puerto Rican, Brazilian, Polynesian, anything but black. This “just like when I have a tan” skin. Whatever-It-Takes-For-You-To-Be-Comfortable-With-Me-And-Not-Have-To-Change-Your-Perception-Of-THEM skin.

That conversation in the library makes me feel sad that even these random and thoughtless conversations are different for me. That my husband could have had that same exact conversation and say, “That was weird.” And it would fly away up into the sky to be forgotten for the nothing it was. But for me, it’s suffocating as heaps of all those other times fall down upon me and bury me in the remembering. Too many other times.

That conversation in the library isn’t just that conversation in the library. It’s that other time I was other, last week, last month, 30 years ago. That time I had been turned away from depositing money INTO a bank for my mom when I was in middle school, only to turn around hand that money to my sister (white/blonde) and have her come out of the bank with a deposit slip. I could never shrug and say, “Maybe that was just a cranky teller. Maybe that IS the policy.” 2017 isn’t the year I realized things are different in America. I’ve known my whole life.

IMG_6122
Author with daughter not talking about freed slaves

It’s like those times my mom (white) still hands me a credit card to charge something when we are out together but she doesn’t want to go into the store. “Mom. I’ll just pay. No big deal.” “Take it! Your sister does it all the time!” “Yes, mom. But we’re different. They will probably ask me for my ID.”

It’s like all those times people have asked me where I’m from and “born in Connecticut,” “spent my youngest years in Brooklyn,” “grew up in Pennsylvania,” “the US” wasn’t enough. They wanted another country and an explanation for my otherness. And they pressed until I had to give myself up and say, “I don’t even know. I’m adopted. The paper work says African-American and Irish-American.” And, most, even after all of that, don’t back down and apologize for nagging such personal information out of me, they tell me I’m wrong and tell me where I’m really from. And I say OK and walk away…. other, wrong, impossible, having to deal with what it means to have been shoved into a box I have no business being inside for someone else’s comfort.

But there is a happy ending to this story. At pickup the day after my library encounter, I had two separate conversations with moms of culturally different backgrounds from me. Despite our differences we have a shared otherness that stands out in a crowd. And they understood. They heard me. And shared their stories which were similar to mine. And I heard them. And we stood there talking in that similar difference, able to navigate through our cultural differences without being offensive, or fetishizing, or visitors at a zoo. Because as one of the women I spoke with said, we’ve been doing just that our whole lives. We grew up learning how to read a situation, navigate the various “worlds” and cultures we’ve lived in, went to school in, or merely passed through briefly.

And maybe that’s why it’s sometimes so hurtful to me when others seem incapable of doing the same. Incapable of reading my extreme discomfort in an awkward conversation or are looking to me to explain my situation so that they can better navigate our “new world.” I’ve been doing that work that seems so mysterious and impossible to others since I was a child. I simply needed to, so I did.

But that aside, aside, I’m holding onto that feeling of ease I had while talking to women I don’t even know that well, but hope to get to know better. And I felt elated walking away from that playground (even if “walking away” for blog purposes was more like rushing  away to find a bathroom for my kid — She made it! Yay!) There was an amazing ease despite talking about racism, well-meaning blunders, and our otherness. There was so much ease in those conversations that I didn’t even realize I was craving or missing or needing so badly.