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 Other Sweet Tea

I’ve lived in a lot of places throughout my life, and by far the strangest place of all has got to be the south.

That place goes out of its way to be out of the way. I mean, there are places I’ve lived that I prefer over others, but I could at least call each one of them home for the most part. Not the south. I’ve never been somewhere where I felt like such an alien. Not to mention, I was reminded constantly by the natives of how much I didn’t belong. Usually in the form of being called a witch due to my affinity for wearing beanies in the middle of summer and my obviously Satan-inspired aspirations of being anything other than a housewife at 18.

I’m kidding, but I’m not exaggerating all that much, sadly.

Oh and the racism. I’ve mainly been raised in Florida, Philadelphia and Southern California, so I’ve had a very limited concept of legitimate racism.

My understanding of racism growing up: twas a thing, twas bad, but then Martin Luther King, and BAM! racism over

I mean sure, I knew it was still prevalent, but I never had an experience of overcoming racism. Maybe just ignorance, but not actual hate. But then I was dragged to Georgia for a year and a half.

My grandfather is from Albany. No, not New York. The much sadder Albany. The one in Georgia. If you want to go back in time to a sorry part of American history, take a trip to Albany. It’s the place where the Civil Rights Movement came, and failedAnd it shows, half a century later. I could use a few posts to share my experiences, but I’ll just focus on one for this entry.

When I was down there, I worked at this hibachi restaurant in town. I was given a table, and it was a group of about ten middle aged to older white men and women with very pronounced southern accents. I introduce myself and ask what they would like to drink. I go down the line taking their orders, like whatever, everyday stuff. Until I get to this one guy.

“And what can I get for you, sir?”

“Ehh, I…I really don’t know. See, I want sweet tea, but I dunno. I like my tea real sweet, y’kno? Tell me, is your tea nigger sweet?

“……….I’m sorry?”

“Like is it nigger sweet? Or did some white girl make it? I like my tea real sweet.”

“Well, I’m not sure what that means, but…I can get you a glass, and if you don’t like it, how about I get you something else?”

“Well that sounds great, thank ya, you’re such a doll!”

Yeah sooooo…that happened. Nigger sweet. Is that a term you’ve ever heard of? To this day I don’t know if that was a good or bad thing! Did he want nigger sweet tea? Was the tea in fact nigger sweet? He didn’t send it back! Does he ask every food establishment this question? Why did he think it was okay to ask me that? Does he not view me as black? Or GASP! DID HE THINK I WOULD KNOW PERSONALLY IF IT WERE NIGGER SWEET??? So many questions. And I don’t think they’ll ever be answered.

I told my family and got mixed responses. Personally, I found it shocking, but also amusing. I mean, I can’t say it was harmless, but it wasn’t overt hate, and I wasn’t a victim of a hate crime. They tipped me reasonably, I’m not mad at them. My uncles were just impressed at how I responded. I apparently handled it really well. I don’t know. The way I see it, if you’re that comfortable to go out in public and say something off the wall like that, and not expect to be reprimanded, then you obviously don’t see the error of your ways. And since it’s so engrained in your reality, you never will. So what am I going to say to you? And why does it matter? You aren’t leaving this small southern town of small minded people, nobody from the outside world is coming to you, and the Internet is considered the devil to many down there, so I’m pretty confident the ignorance is contained.

But back to the restaurant! Not even a week goes by at work, and one night, we run out of tea in the middle of a busy hour. My coworker who was just the epitome of southern belle, who usually sweetens the tea, was too busy with her tables to get to the kitchen. So this other girl makes the new batch. I bring my drinks to my table, and a couple guests try the tea, cringe, and ask for something else. Okay. I leave to get them something else to drink. But I walk into the kitchen to see a bunch of my coworkers waiting to use the soda machine. Every person at their tables apparently sent back the tea. Every black person, that is…

OH MY GOD, NIGGER SWEET IS A THING!