Turnabout and Fair Play

I know that I’m not the only one who wishes she could respond to ignorance more quickly and with more cleverness.

All too often the only response I have to someone (this is in meat-space, mind you; I feel pretty satisfied with my online responses to jackassery) is a shocked look, a stammer, or a mumble. Despite the fact that I SHOULDN’T be surprised at someone’s rudeness, I frequently am. And it’s not because I didn’t know that people could be such jerks; it’s just that I rarely expect that level of upfront rudeness until it’s smacked me in the face. And then even after it’s happened, in the moments afterward I wonder if I could simply be taking it the wrong way. I wonder first if there’s something wrong with ME rather than THEM.

While we were on vacation last month, a strange white woman started cooing at Eve, who was toddling about in her little blue peace sign flip flops. She asked her in a high-pitched lilting voice, “Can I take you home with me?” I personally think it’s weird to ask to take home someone’s kid, even jokingly, but enough of my friends, family, coworkers, and complete strangers have done it by now that I figure it’s normal enough. So I didn’t mind that; in fact, I was smiling because Eve was smiling at the woman.

Then things got genuinely bizarre. The woman added, “You want to come home with me? Do you want to do my dishes? How about wash my laundry?” My mouth dropped open, Eve just smiled at her, and before I even had time to fully process the fact that this white woman had pretty much just asked my black child if she wanted to be her domestic servant, the woman had already turned tail and disappeared.

In mere seconds, the interaction had gone from casually friendly to racially fucked and I said nothing to defend my child. My brain was still going “Wha-?” as the woman’s back turned, and by the time she was gone, I was already questioning myself and doing whatever mental acrobatics I needed to do to convince myself that THAT HADN’T REALLY HAPPENED.

I’ve never been very good at defending myself against the microaggressions that I receive from whites. Most of the time it happens too quickly for me to process and respond, and the times that it isn’t, I’m not able to just flippantly tell the jerk about hirself. Every time it happens, I must weigh the consequences of my possible responses, because people of color do not have the option of standing up for themselves without paying a price. Sometimes I deem that it’s worth it: I won’t get fired, hauled into HR, thrown out of the organization, or blacklisted in my field for speaking up or speaking out.

Most of them time I decide that it’s not worth it. I could say something, but I don’t, because I need this job, I enjoy this organization, I really want to work with the local lactivists even though they’re overwhelmingly white and therefore bound to sideswipe me with their privilege.

I don’t think that it makes me a bad person, choosing not to fight those battles. But I do wonder if it makes me a bad mother.

I don’t actually think of myself as a bad mom, for the record. I just can’t help but wonder how many times the damage to Eve caused by my inaction outweighs the perceived benefits to myself.

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5 Responses to “Turnabout and Fair Play”

  1. choleandjo Says:

    Though the counter to any damage that might be caused by inaction is the damage caused by screaming profanities at that awful woman… because those would be my two options: silence or an awful show of anger.

    Some of this will get easier as Evie gets older, because you’ll be able to have conversations with her.

    The reality is safety first and making a difference second, perhaps especially when you are a parent and definitely especially when the difference you would make would be minimal (or, worse, affirming of the other person’s beliefs — clearly any anger or offense would be due to you being an angry (uppity… the list goes on) black woman, not because you have any legitimate right to your feelings / offense). Even if you had the words, speaking up may have made little difference and in that kind of situation in the world we live in, may have put you in danger (a small part of me honestly thinks “but maybe rainbows and unicorns would come down and the woman would go ‘wow, I didn’t realize that that was so hurtful'”).

    It’s just back to that same old fine line between activism and the silence that is fraught with wondering “if only I…”

    All that, and I want to punch that lady in the face and have ever since you told me that. Repeatedly. There’s probably a cute fine line statement in there somewhere, too, but really violence might be the answer. 🙂

    • August Says:

      In a way it will get easier as Eve grows older, but it will definitely get harder in other ways. At least she was too young to understand the interaction; the stakes will change once Evie is really able to feel the impact of these kinds of interactions.

      If Eve were old enough to understand the implications of what that woman said to her, I like to think that my response would have been different.

      • Choleandjo Says:

        I guess what I mean is easier in the sense that even if you can’t have a response to the individuals leading the racist charge (perhaps someone on television, on the internet, someone who walks away SUPER fast), you can have a response to an older Eve that will prepare her for other such interactions and make a positive impact in everyone’s future.

        That is, your response would be different, but it STILL might not be different to the person doing the talking, for whatever reason. And it won’t be emotionally any easier no matter what, I hope (because I don’t want to imagine a world where you are apathetic to racist comments spewing from people), but you may feel that at least you can do something, which to me is easier on the soul than feeling totally helpless when those kinds of situations occur.

  2. theroamingnaturalist Says:

    I think your response certainly would have been different if Eve was old enough to take on the emotional responsibility of such an interaction.

    Not that it matters, but I wonder if the woman was intentionally making a “black people should be servants” type of statement, or if it was just coming out of her mouth and she didn’t even realize what she was implying? I don’t see how she could choose words like ‘dishes’ and ‘laundry’ in reference to taking a black baby home with her withOUT realizing the implication, but I guess it still shocks me that people can be so intentionally ignorant/hateful/insert appropriate word. 😦

    Personally I like to imagine the types of things that Eve would say back to that woman once she’s about 17 or 18 and has had that much time with you and Marcus, learning about all the things you’re going to teach her. It makes me happy. And she’d make that “Wtf!” face that you make all the time. Yup, there’s my joy for the day.

    • August Says:

      Considering the racial climate of our vacation – we encoutered more overt racist fuckery and hostility in one week than I had in the entire preceeding month – I’m not particularly keen on giving her the benefit of the doubt.

      The level of hostility and microaggressions we encountered was unusual. We’ve been vacationing at the same spot for almost a decade and it’s never been like that. But this is the first time we’ve vacationed there since Obama’s election (we didn’t vacation at all last summer since I was too pregnant), so I wonder if that had anything to do with the new social climate.

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