Intersections – Echoes of the same
By Nicki Salcedo, contributor
I tell my kids that they aren’t the same as other children. I try to make this sound like a superpower. The rules of the ordinary world do not apply to us. My children are young. It is difficult for them to understand. It is difficult for me to teach them when I also don’t understand.
My father never missed a week cutting the grass. Even if lightning or thunderstorms threatened, he mowed the lawn. You couldn’t live in a white neighborhood with an unkempt yard. Our shrubs were rounded like beautiful afros. The blades of grass never grew tall enough to bend. We couldn’t give the neighbors a reason to despise us more than they already did.
It was our job to minimize their hate.
I stayed near books. Education was paramount. They can hate you, but they cannot uneducate you.
I spoke the way my parents did. I speak in a way that has gotten me a lifetime of compliments. From them.
I straightened my hair. For them.
I stayed away from boys. But now I know that the boys stayed away from me. I was not a temptation. Brown skin, curly hair, bookish. I was not a possibility.
I had to learn to deflect anger with other emotions. Creativity. Happiness. Curiosity. Anger was not allowed. Anger was for someone else, but not me.
I had to turn disappointment into courage. I remember my second grade teacher who hated me because I was not white. I spent a year in her class as she tried to crush and silence me. She tried to destroy me. But she didn’t.
I met your friend at a barbeque, not 30 years ago but this summer in Decatur, Georgia. The friend who wanted to touch my hair. The friend who said my cornrows were “interesting” and stared at me like an animal in the zoo.
I met your friend at a meeting who almost didn’t shake my hand. Because I was not a man. I was not white. How could I be the one in charge?
But when I tell you, you say, “He wouldn’t do that.” You assume he is right. You are just like him. You have never been ignored or disrespected. I know when someone dismisses me with their eyes. I know when someone tries to make me invisible. You don’t know the world as I see it.
I’ve learned when to stay silent and when to raise my hand. Our palms, if raised, look the same. All of us with lines that tell the future. Lines from where we make a fist. Those palms used to be a symbol of victory, rejoicing, and triumph. Now they mean surrender. Now they mean stop.
Being good enough is never enough. The only way I can be your equal is by being better. Some will, of course, hate me for this. Others have already spent their lives hating me because I breathe.
I wish you could walk through this world not in my shoes, but with my eyes. What will I tell my children? Everything I say sounds like an echo from my parents. The more things stay the same, the more things stay the same. That is the echo.
A cop walks through the Square. You know her. She patrols the business district. We see her talk to an old man.
“Joe, it is too hot to be walking. Do you need a ride?” She says.
He pats her on the shoulder and declines the offer. They exchange smiles. She is white. He is not. My children think this is the real world. It is. And it isn’t.
The cop see us and continues to smile. This is the real world. And it isn’t. “You never let your kids come up to the Square,” the cop says. She chastises me like an old friend. “I’ll keep an eye on them.”
I’m a mean mom. A tiger mom. I say this to the cop. Joking is my superpower. I joke about the truth.
I don’t allow my children to go to the Square to hang out. I’m not saying they never will go, but not now. I don’t tell them it is about race. I don’t tell them that white kids can be imperfect. White kids can make mistakes. My kids don’t have that luxury. We aren’t allowed second chances.
What do I tell my kids about the world? Be impeccable with your actions, your words, your life. This is what I say to my kids. Let’s be real. That’s a lot of pressure to put on an 8-year-old boy.
What do I tell my kids about race? Nothing. I don’t have a problem with race. You do.
What do I tell my kids about the police? I love the police. I know several police officers around our perfect Americana town. I want my kids to respect every person, every teacher and nurse and artist and cop. I want my kids to respect me. I want them to respect themselves.
I want them to respect someone who has lived a different kind of life. A hard life. I want them to respect and understand anger, but not go looking for it.
It is difficult for me to teach my kids this when I don’t understand it myself.
You can be perfect, impeccable, and kind. And people will still hate you. Should I tell my kids that? It is the truth.
Maybe you should be the one to talk to my children. What will you say?
“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.