While at a festival at Millennium Park with some friends recently, I took note of this chubby sweet little white girl. She was probably four or five, with thick braided pigtails and cheeks that were round and ruddy like something out of an antique comic strip. She was playing with her grandmother, who was holding a piece of fruit out of her grasp, and shrieking with giggles, “I want the banana!”
Her mother, laden with a shoulder cooler and trying to fold up a captain’s chair one-handed, took her daughter by the arm and said to her, “NO, you let Grandma keep that. A stranger gave us that banana, and we don’t eat fruit strangers give us.”
The statement hung between my girlfriend and me for a brief moment before she verbally shrugged, saying, “It’s probably good advice.”
And it probably is; this is the reason we check apples for razor blades when our little ones go Trick-or-Treating. There’s no telling what some sicko might have injected into a banana and then will pawn off on some hungry child who’s depending on her cuteness and the kindness of strangers.
But I couldn’t help thinking that maybe not all strangers are at home sticking razors and syringes full of poison into fruit to give to our kids. Maybe some strangers just have extra fruit that they didn’t want to pack and take home at the end of the concert.
I’ve been thinking about how adults teach children: how, when we are young, they teach us to consider others’ needs ahead of our own; how they teach us to fight for our rights, or to stand up for what’s Right; how they teach us to show love, or how to cope with what happens when the world doesn’t do what we want it to; how to respond to someone who treats you mean, what to do when you encounter someone who is different than you, or how to take that difference and use it to your advantage and against their own. What are we teaching our kids explicitly, when we say, Let me tell you something, or Are you listening? What are we teaching our kids when they are silent, retreating into the woodwork, and observing our behavior as adults?
(Incidentally, if you ever wonder what kind of behavior is being modeled for kids, just play Pretend with them. In a quick minute you will experience the adult behavior that makes an impression on them, whether it’s having a purse with stuff to put in it, or the nature of talking on the phone, or any number of other behaviors we as adults take for granted. I recently had a play date with Little Star and one of her friends, and we played Family. While I tried to put together a Strawberry Shortcake puzzle, the two mommies, or rather, Mommy and Big Sister—the daddy was absent—forced me into bed. Mommy then came in and woke me up, to tell me that my grandpa had died in the war. First? Second? Vietnam? Gulf 1 or 2? I never found out. Her Sissie found out from calling Grandma, I was told, but don’t worry; she would never let anything like that happen to me, and would always keep me safe.)
I have no memory of what kinds of adult behavior I modeled after my mother and father in my own private games of Make Believe. But I learned about c.p. time from my father. He taught me that he did his best to be on time or early to anything and everything, because he didn’t want the world to watch him stroll in fifteen minutes late and think, “Look who runs on c.p. time.” (Is it possible you don’t know what this is? “Colored People” time? A belief that black folks always run shit, arrive for shit and start shit, later than advertised? It’s impossible for us to be on time ‘cause we’re so lazy and we’d rather eat watermelon and tap dance than keep our word?) I learned how to make tuna salad, and how to bake a cake. I learned about Marvin Gaye and about James Baldwin.
From my mother I learned a number of things, some of which I wish had remained locked in the vault of ignorance. My mother taught me how to clean a house and bless it before you move in; she taught me to clip my ends once a month at least to prevent breakage (God, I do not miss straight hair); she taught me how to use clear nail polish to stop a run in your pantyhose; she taught me how to interrupt someone while they’re talking. And she taught me how to fear. Whether I was worried about washing my hands correctly after a pee to wash Hepatitis down the drain, or worried about whether this seat was clean enough to sit on or if I should squat, or worried about whether this guy who’d just brought me this drink from the bar had dissolved something in it first, she taught me how to fear, how to worry about what was outside my control, and how to try to control everything so that I would have less to worry about.
My mother taught me about white girls.
What’s wrong with white girls?
A specific kind of white girl. I call them nice-nasty girls, because they look real nice on the outside, but on the inside they’re real nasty.
Like, they share combs and brushes, and you should never do that because they could have lice and then you would have gone and got it in your hair—you use your own comb only. They share mascara wands, spreading pink-eye and other germs all over the place. They use the bathroom, and don’t wash their hands after they come out, even when they're on their period. And everybody thinks they’re so sweet and so nice, and they smile so pretty. But nobody knows that they’re nasty inside.
I didn’t know if any of this was true, when my mother taught me this lesson; I’d seen white girls in school, but never in such intimate quarters that I’d know about their hygiene or beauty habits. I was a child and she was my mother: she always had the answers for everything, and this was no exception. I secretly suspected white girls of running around, obsessively raking their combs through each other’s heads, rooting their fingers between their legs and then smearing them all over various surfaces and substances, laughing maniacally, their blue and green and honey brown eyes rolling around in their white faces, laughing at the marvelous dirty trick they were playing on the whole world, appearing so nice, but secretly being so nasty.
Now I know that the lesson my mother was teaching me, as many are, was based in some experience she had, some awful myopic injustice she felt committed against her by some white girl who was the apple of all else’s eye, but my mom knew to be dishonest and untrue. Perhaps it was some girl who crossed her in the pompon dance squad at her high school, or someone who cheated off her on a History test, or some snotty fellow reporter from her journalism days. But whoever hurt her, she was determined to teach her daughter to watch out for these women, innocent as doves, wise as serpents.
This lesson that my mother taught me, about never trusting white women, has almost been exorcised from my head and heart. My best girlfriends in the whole world are white. I seldom forget their whiteness, but that seldom makes a difference. My best girlfriends--blond, curly, alabaster, fair--love me, and I love them. Our minds and hearts and world views are close enough that when difference of experience or opinion arises, it is merely that, and not a division within our relationships.
I said almost. Because some days, when it’s been a bad day, and I’ve been reminded that although I have great relationships with white women, there are some who treat me rather snakelike, or some days, when a friend says something well-intentioned but thoughtless, my mother’s lesson is still inside me, insisting, see I told you, that’s how white girls are, that’s what they do.
A friend of mine recently forced me to reconsider this struggle, of having so many loved ones as members of the majority culture, and still being so angry with the unjust, unkind, thoughtless and ugly acts performed by other members of that majority culture. It’s made me realize that while my mother has tried to protect me with her lessons, the guarded mistrust she sowed in my heart (that’s been fed and nurtured by negative experiences) has grown into a hedge inside me that I have to choose to jump. I have to choose to ignore what my mother has planted in me, and try to make my own decisions about how to process interracial conflict and how to respond to it.
I know she was just trying to protect her daughter from the world. There are people in the world who put razor blades in fruit and give it away, who need to make you feel worse so they can feel better, who delight in our misery. God bless us and our mothers, they try to protect us from getting cut. But sometimes that protection can metastasize into fear and mistrust, and then it’s a lot harder to get rid of. I don’t know what my mother was trying to teach me when she warned me about the Nice Nasty Girls; but her own struggle has become part of the baggage that every day I am trying to yank out of my own heart so it won’t grow back.
She planted the seed a long time ago, and fed it well. I’ll be on my knees, gardening, for a while.