Growing Up Beige: Black People Scare Squirrels

My mom loves telling this story about when I was a little girl walking with her through Fairmount Park.

We’re walking through the park, I was about 4 years old. A squirrel runs by as we get near.

“Mommy, you scared that squirrel.”

“Yeah, squirrels are scared of people. They’ll run when we get too close.”

“Yeah okay, but you scared the squirrel.”

“Me? You didn’t scare it too?”

“No.”

“Well why did scare the squirrel?”

“Because you’re brown.”

Yeah guys, from the mouth of a four year old, black people scare squirrels. Wait, it gets worse!

“So I scared the squirrel because I’m brown?”

“Yeah.”

“You didn’t scare the squirrel?”

“No?”

“But you’re brown too…”

My mom says I looked confused.

“No, I’m beige.”

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^Brown^

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^Beige^

So where do squirrels draw the line in their discrimination? My mom investigated further.

“So who else is brown? Does your Gran Gran scare squirrels?”

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“No.”

“How about your uncle Elliott?”

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“Yes.”

And from those separate ends of the spectrum, my mom asked about people closer and closer to my complexion, and she discovered that squirrels then started discriminating based on hair texture. Relatives with straightened hair were beige, those with curly or kinky hair were brown. This was me at four years old.

I used to share that story as a joke. It was funny and crazy how prejudice I was as a kid, and completely untaught to be so. Shocking, but comical. Kids say the darndest things, right? I told the story to a couple people sitting at the bar at my cafe one day. Peers, fellow 20-somethings. White. Typical coffeeshop types. I got a reaction I had never experienced before. It made them sad. They shook their heads in disbelief.

“To think that there are children growing up to see their own race as bad, scary even, just in their innocent understanding of their world…heartbreaking. This is where we are, sad,” one of them said to me.

They understood the underlying sinister cause of a child to have such a worldview. I guess it was one thing to understand the forces at play in your society, to understand the concept of racism and institutionalized racism. But to actually apply that to personal accounts isn’t something they’re often privy to. It had never occurred to me either until that moment, honestly.

I haven’t grown up to be much different in my understanding of the world since four years of age. If anything, I’ve gotten worse. A simple internalization of the imbalance of my world turned into confirmations through negative experiences that maybe this imbalance is justified, and I’m happy to not associate with the receivers of the short end. I’m beige, and squirrels don’t fear me. I can walk through the park peacefully.

I’m going to share more memories and stories of growing up beige, because I didn’t think it was something anyone would find relatable, but maybe it is. I’ve felt bad not following through on my promise of a piece about Michael Brown when I posted Java and Jokes on Hold two whole years ago. I didn’t forget. When I sat and tried to write, I just didn’t know how to talk about it. I didn’t know how to feel. I didn’t feel like my feeling upset was legitimate, because I’ve never associated with the black community. Would my beige words matter? Would they seem sincere? Why did I suddenly care, really? From what perspective do I write this? Am I angry or upset enough? Wait, this kind of stuff happens all the time? I didn’t know. I might as well be a white person trying to care, because I never felt so outside. Rather, I’ve never felt uncomfortable being outside. I was entering a point in my life that I never imagined reaching, 

The point where being beige became unsustainable. 

And I don’t know which way is forward. But I have to figure it out, and I invite you on the adventure too.

 

The Screaming Man on the Park Bench

I get weird when I’m tired.

Like really weird.

Just outright bizarre.

And I’ve been tired a lot lately.

You’re always thinking something, right? But you might not always be actively thinking a thought, y’know? Sometimes your mind drifts into this fluid space between your conscious and subconscious, and random, often nonsensical thoughts hit you out of nowhere.

I fall into that fluid space easily and often when I haven’t had much sleep. And as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been tired a lot lately.

See, most of the time, when you’ve been properly…sleepdrated (like hydrated but for sleep? There has to be a word for this that I can’t think of…but sleepdrated will do for now.), one of these weird thoughts fly at you like,

Hey you know what would be fun? Jumping into oncoming traffic!

and you can immediately distinguish that this is not a wise decision, it would not in fact be fun. You realize that it wasn’t your regular thoughts, your mind has drifted into the abyss, and you revert your focus and stay on the sidewalk.

There are those few times, though, when you are not fully equipped with the energy and sense to shut down these weird ideas. And when you let them linger in your head too long, they become their own thing and become harder and harder to stop. And thus we have the screaming man on the park bench.

My boyfriend picked me up from work one night after I pulled a 13 hour shift between two locations of my job. It was a pretty silent ride, as I was exhausted and he was focused on not letting us die at the hands of a New Jersey driver. We passed a park, and I broke into an uncontrollable giggle fit. I could not get it together. After maybe ten minutes, my laughing and tears subsided just enough to explain myself. Unfortunately for Dave, my sleep deprivation did not allow me the sense to share that it was a fleeting thought from my subconscious mind…

“There is a man sitting on a park bench, and he won’t stop screaming.”

“What? Where?”

“There’s a man. He just walked up one day, sat down at a bench, and screamed. He’s still screaming. He won’t stop.”

“At that park? What man? I didn’t see anyone screaming.”

“Why is he screaming? Does anybody know!? That man…”

“Uhm…okay I think it’s time we get you home.”

A few days go by after that. Dave and I are eating breakfast.

“He’s going to become a tourist attraction. He’s going to be on the news.”

“Who?”

“The screaming man on the park bench. He easily became a nuisance after like the first day.”

“Stormy, WHAT SCREAMING MAN??? Did you see this guy?”

“But why is he screaming, though? Is he sad? Is he angry? Is this personal or is this a protest?”

“I can’t with you.”

“Whole think-pieces are probably going to be written about him,” I yell as Dave walks out of the room, “like who he is, where he came from, if he has family! What does his family think?”

Another week, another night vedging out with Dave after a long day at work.

“Have you ever seen the music video for ‘Days Go By’ by Dirty Vegas?”

“Nope, never heard of it.”

“You need to see it.”

“…Okay? That’s not really the kind of music I go for.”

“No, the video!”

“What about it?”

“Maybe he lost somebody.”

“Who?”

“The screaming man…on the park bench.”

OH MY GOD.” 

Weeks later, Dave and I are venting about work drama.

“They can’t keep working me to death like this. One more week without a day off and I’m gonna…I’m gonna go to the park.”

“You’re gonna what?”

“I’m gonna go to the park, sit on a bench, and scream.”

My mouth dropped. “Oh my gosh. YOU’RE the screaming man on the park bench??? Am I clairvoyant!?”

“No…and no, but I think I can relate to him.”

“I think I can relate to him too sometimes. Maybe we all can.”

Maybe we all can.”

I get really weird when I’m tired. So weird, it’s contagious.

Huh…I wonder if the screaming is contagious…

He could garner a following! Maybe there will be screaming women on park benches! Woah…that screaming man..