Wade in

A few weeks ago, my husband and I took our children to the Winter Wonderland display at the Maine Mall. The online ad promised a festive array of merry-making activities, and we weren’t disappointed on that end. The massive train table, holiday movie lounge, wall drawing stations, and jumbo chess and checker boards were impressive, all wrapped up in a North Pole Workshop ambiance. It was lovely to exhale for a moment and let the little people explore an open and engaging public space meant for them—or so we thought at first.

Moments after we arrived and set our tiny adventurers free to roam, however, I overheard a comment that sucked every ounce of holiday cheer from the air and pierced my gut with a visceral reminder of the unceasing vulnerability wrapped up in being black. It was a joke, told by a middle-aged white man, to and about the only other Black person in the room. The two men were coworkers, dressed up like workshop helpers, laughing and chatting with professional familiarity and with the pleasantness created for the benefit of customers—white customers as a matter of default, I suppose.

The Black man was tall, his voice was deep and warm. He wore dreadlocks and a disarming smile as he ran the trains, offering peppermints and other treats to children passing by. I was glad to see him. I felt an immediate modicum of relief in not being the only one.

Then the white man called out to him, nonchalantly, “My mother always told me to stay away from big, Black men giving away candy!” To which the Black man only chuckled. I felt my hands go numb and my insides begin to shake. I wanted to respond, nonchalantly, “Then I guess your mom was a racist bitch!” But with the fire of rage steadily building in my chest, I knew I would never pull off nonchalant. In fact, I couldn’t imagine a scenario in which I would not end up on YouTube, a screaming, angry Black woman coming unhinged before a crowd of confounded white shoppers, suddenly devastated and aghast at me for exposing their sheltered babies to the subject of racism and to the use of the b-word.

Yet, here my own babies played in a room full of grown people who collectively failed to blink the moment blackness was openly equated with danger and suspicion. Where everyone could let a racist comment slide because it was just a joke, and (under the surface) because the premise of the joke hit a raw nerve of hideous truth, as jokes often do—the truth that white society is terrified of blackness. Which would be funny, in a twisted, satirical, “laugh so you don’t cry” kind of way, if this terrified bigotry didn’t end Black lives on a regular basis. It might even bring a wry smile to my face if race and systematic racism were not violently denied as factors in the death of innocent Black humans daily. But they are. And the blackness that’s so frightening to a society built on the assumed superiority and innocence of whiteness, is the same blackness beautifully carried by my children’s own gentle, affectionate Haitian grandfather, with whom they had just reconnected over Thanksgiving. It is worn proudly by their intensely sensitive, creative, protective mother. And by extension, this blackness lies quietly in the intricate foundation of who my children are.

And before you step in to remind me that it is, in fact, wise to teach your children not to take candy from strange men, let me remind you that the premise of the joke wasn’t, “Strange men are scary / dangerous.” It was “strange, Black men are scary / dangerous.” And whether you are comfortable acknowledging it or not, the fact that this qualifier had to be included, makes the joke racist.

So, this is how I came to stand in the middle of the Winter Wonderland display at the mall, debating whether to become an instant YouTube sensation, and more problematically, whether to create a hostile work environment for the subject of this racist joke in the process, or to be compliant in the silent violence that leaves deadly bigotry unchecked, only occasionally acknowledged by this sort of satirical ribbing which functions as complicity.

This particular incident ended with my white husband stepping in. Having chased our darting threenager to another corner of the holiday playland, he had escaped the pleasure of the spontaneous comedy show starring Santa’s helper. But when the Mr. wandered closer again, he could tell from my facial expression and body language that something wasn’t right. When he found out what it was, he said, “I’m going to go talk to him.” Calmly, but unwaveringly, he explained how damaging it is for children to absorb these kind of messages about Black men. When the white man explained that he and his coworker “joked like that all the time,” my husband just responded that it didn’t matter, because jokes can be harmful. Several apologies were given, and we left to let our children ride the carousel.

But the larger story doesn’t end there. In fact, there is no end in sight. Because, as much as I wish implicit, deadly lies about blackness lived and died in a single corner of the Maine Mall, and that we could all shield our children from their damage by simply avoiding such a place, this is not the case. These lies continue to thrive in the word choices and tone of news anchors, in speeches given by our elected officials, and in jokes told around the table at holiday feasts. And while some parents are busy making sure their children’s tiny feet remain untouched by the dingy waves of the moral crisis still flooding our nation, the rest of us are fighting to stay afloat with our babies. It’s time for more allies to wade in.


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4 thoughts on “Wade in

  1. I can only imagine what this did to the soul of the black gentleman to be at the blunt end of such abusive language from his ‘white “co- worker. I so hope that seeds of change were planted into this guy’s consciousness by your husband’s remarks. Personally , I think I would have done the “U Tube” …. enough, is enough !

  2. Thank you for writing about this, so powerfully and eloquently. I’m in awe of your restraint, and grateful for the reminder that the days of not speaking up are all over. Thank you for the work you and your husband did at the mall to move us forward.

  3. Good for your husband. He stood up and spoke up, and it sounds like he did it in a way that will have a lasting impact on the white man who made the stupid racist joke as well as the black man who failed to stand up or speak up. This is how change happens. Painfully slow, but it is one path to change. Hope you and your family have a Merry Christmas!

  4. Having observed this type behavior over and over by fellow white people, I cringe to read of your experience. Your husband it’s a brave soul. Bless him for taking action and hopefully teaching the “jokester” something. If everyone would learn to not add extraneous descriptive it would bee a small step in the right direction. One should not say “black man” or Jewish woman” et . when “man” or “woman” gives all the necessary information. One step, one person at a time — surely we can get there.

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