Intersections – The whites of their eyes
We wear the mask that grins and lies. – Paul Laurence Dunbar
By Nicki Salcedo
When they broadcasted “The Wiz Live!” my kids were very excited. We’ve enjoyed the movie “The Wiz” for years, but only recently watched the original “The Wizard of Oz.” My oldest announced, “This is a rip-off of ‘The Wiz!’” and I had to explain that the 1939 movie version came first.
They are the generation where everything is backwards. They knew that Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader before they ever watched “Star Wars.” They treat LEGOs like backyard rocks. They can watch any TV show or movie on demand, any time, any place. Magic and mystery are often lost on our kids.
My daughter made a strange comment to me before the movie started. That’s where the magic ended.
“Mommy, I can’t wait to see it.” She was smiling up at me. Then she paused. “Did you know that, no offense, all the characters are black?”
I am black. Our family is filled with black and brown people. I don’t often talk about race with my kids. I don’t want them thinking that we define people by their skin or religion. Honestly, this is the privilege of being the minority. I don’t judge others based on race even though we will always be judged by our skin.
I’ve been proud that my kids didn’t have the right vocabulary for race until recently. Their friend Joel has brown skin. Their friend Taylor has pink skin. The first time they heard the word white for white people they laughed.
“That skin isn’t white,” they insisted. “It’s pink. Maybe peach. Mommy, you aren’t black, you’re brown.” What did I know about race anyway? They are the future and I’m the past, but the old rage inside of me woke up at, “No offense, all the characters are black.”
I asked my daughter why she said “no offense.” She didn’t know why, but I knew the answer. Someone has said this to her. She understands that conversations about race might offend. She repeats what she has seen and heard.
“Why is a movie with black people offensive?” I asked. She is too young to understand #OscarsSoWhite so I relate it to her in terms that she can figure out. “Would you say can we watch ‘Goonies’— no offense— the movie with all the white people in it?”
My daughter shook her head and gave me a look like she was in trouble but didn’t know why. I put away my rage for later, but I’ve felt it all the days since.
I’ve spent a year avoiding the news, because I don’t deal well with rage and disappointment. I am optimistic about everything, and I am real about everything. I never expect justice. I never expect peace.
Do black lives matter? I know the answer. They don’t.
Is my son safe in a world where he’s viewed as a threat? No.
Are the contributions of women valued and recognized? They’re not.
Will the pendulum stop swinging between white flight and gentrification? No. Who wants to live with brown people or poor people? No one.
I’m still optimistic. Is it offensive for “The Wiz” to have a black cast? Is it offensive to question the lack of diversity in books and movies and television?
Days later, I said this to my daughter, “Just because you are happy and optimistic does not mean that you should be silenced or ignored or pushed aside.” She is eleven years old. I will have to say this again and again all her life.
Many times when I’m in a professional setting, I hear the delicate tapping of stilettos as another woman walks by. Even though I like how high heels look, my first thought is always, “I wouldn’t want to walk a mile in her shoes.” I wear comfortable shoes whenever possible.
I can invite you to walk a mile in my shoes, but the journey won’t be more comfortable.
Imagine a convention with 2,000 people. Of those, 20 of them represent people of color. I mean any and all color. Twenty people. When someone mentioned that their role model was Martin Luther King, Jr. during the meeting, all the eyes in the room wandered over to me. The sole black person. No offense, but this sucks.
When I walk into a room, there is a moment when all the eyes make note of me. Is she the girl bringing coffee? Does she work here? No one assumes that I am a leader. No one assumes that I belong. No one assumes that I matter. There is a death that I experience each day that is no different than being gunned down. It lasts forever and no one sees it.
I was in the flagship Neiman Marcus store last month. I stood at the counter purchasing something and the man behind the register gave me the employee discount.
“I don’t work here,” I said. “I’m a customer.”
“Oh,” he said. There was such a long pause. The funny thing is that he had been nice to me the entire time. No snobbery. Nothing I would point to as racist or weird until I tried to pay.
I’m often mistaken for an employee at Target. I’m often mistaken for a flight attendant. I love Target. I fly all the time. Should I consider these things compliments? No offense, right?
No offense if I have a few things to say. No offense if I smile. Some battles are quiet, you have to get close before you rage. Stand your ground. They say don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes. I’ll wait until you get close and ask if any of this matters to you.
“Intersections,” the book, is a collection of columns from Decaturish.com and beyond. It is now available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Nicki Salcedo is a Decatur resident and Atlanta native. She is a novelist, blogger, and a working mom. Her column, Intersections, runs every Wednesday morning.