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?”
“Well why did I 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?”
“You didn’t scare the squirrel?”
“But you’re brown too…”
My mom says I looked confused.
“No, I’m 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?”
“How about your uncle Elliott?”
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.