We stopped for some barbecue. We were in the area anyway. I was pet sitting for a friend who lives in the inner city. Will suggested the place. I figured he deserved a reward for escorting me on my various errands so I agreed even though it wasn't his birthday or Father's Day and I don't care much for most meat. I figured I'd get my karmic payback soon enough and we'd find ourselves eating at my favorite Ethiopian restaurant just down the street from us in the burbs.
Katie and I told Will what we wanted--a ham sandwich and fries for her; a turkey sandwich and fries for me--then stood back, out of the way. It was a Saturday, lunchtime. The entire area in front of the counter was packed full of customers waiting to order or waiting for their food or waiting for more napkins. All of them, children even, were patiently waiting. And quiet. Except for my child.
"Mama, why do all of the people in here except us have black skin?"
She might as well have said it over the intercom. I bet the cooks back at the smoker could hear Katie's question.
I generally pride myself on my answers to Katie's unending stream of questions. It's my favorite thing about parenting: discussing the philosophical questions. I notice other parents often giving up and growing impatient. Belching out answers such as, "Just because!" And "Never mind!" And, "That's just the way it is!" Now I understand. Sometimes the answers are too murky to explain.
Some kind of Einstein, although probably not The Einstein, said, "If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself." He's right. Katie will be six in a couple weeks. This time she stumped me.
"Uh, um..." I looked down at Katie's face. Her unblemished, lily white skin. I could feel the rosacea flaring on my own pitted and spider-veiny cheeks. The Celtic Curse, they call it. Rosacea is even worse when there's some underlying white guilt triggering it.
About a decade ago when I was still in college, I took a class at our city college called "Social Organization of the City." It was fascinating. We studied historic documents that showed the segregated racial boundaries in our city and compared them to the current demographics. In the forty years since white flight took off in our city, very little integration occurred until this last decade. When I was attending my suburban school district in the late eighties it was still incredibly homogeneous. I had one black friend growing up. And she was actually biracial. She lived with her single mother, who was white. I never met her dad. I don't think she had ever met her dad either. She never talked about him, even when I asked her questions. I generally got the same "Uh, um..." like I gave Katie at the barbecue joint. Now Katie goes to the same school district I did, only it's become more racially diverse. There were three black and white biracial children in her kindergarten class last year. And several Latinos and other browner skinned kids. But still, most of her classmates are white. How do you explain segregation and white flight to a small child? In front of an audience of African-Americans?
Even though I took that class and studied the issue of race and integration within cities and suburbs, I still had no idea how to explain it to Katie as we waited for our smoked meat and fried potatoes.
"Uh, um...This neighborhood is home to lots of black people." I tried sticking to the facts. Not editorializing is incredibly difficult for me. I began to sweat under my arm pits.
Oh shit. "Uh, um..." I kept looking down at Katie's face. If I looked at anyone else around us they might see my clenched smile and wide eyes and then I'd lose whatever little cool I had. "Well, um..."
"Why, Mama?" Katie grabbed my hand and squeezed it.
I suddenly could not get that Bruce Hornsby video out of my head:
"Because their moms and dads lived here. People tend to like to live near their family."
Thank you, Jesus! Hallelujah! Thank you God for helping me pull that answer out of my ass!
Later, it had been quiet in our car for a long time. It was triple digits hot as hell outside and we were all conserving our energy trying to cool off our bodies by not talking in our air-conditioned car. Milling over what I should have said, I blurted out, "But we're all family if you go back far enough. If you go back to Mitochondrial Eve!"
There. I felt better. Until Katie replied.
"What are you talking about, Mother?"
"Never mind." I said, turning my hot face toward the vent.