We were obsessed. We didn’t realize we were doing it, but we started to fetishize all men that weren’t white. They didn’t need to be on TV, it was ALL with a capital A-L-L men that weren’t white. The idea of dating someone who wasn’t white was exciting.
The town I grew up in was small. One of the biggest crimes of my childhood was a burglary committed by the local bad boy. (He dyed his bangs with hydrogen peroxide.) Too young to have a driver’s license, he used a lawn tractor as his getaway vehicle. Everyone knew he did it because like any small town, there was gossip. After the break-in most people still didn’t lock their homes. Despite the gossip, the town was a lot like Pleasantville (prior to receiving color). Part of me enjoyed the closeness. I could count on things like knowing that the family of my elementary school librarian would have my back if I ever needed them. But, being a small town, people would always see you as who you were in elementary school.
Knowing nearly all your classmates from an early age, reinvention at any age was prohibitive. Unlike many, who can reinvent themselves in high school, a third of the class you knew since you were six and the other two thirds you knew since 6th grade. These other two thirds were experiencing the same problem because we were all attending the same regional middle school high/high school. Regional schools are common for Middle-of-Nowhere, Connecticut, where towns are so small there aren’t enough students to fill one school. Two or more towns join together to send their students to one location. My school had three towns, grades 6-12. This meant that middle school and high school shared common areas like cafeteria, computer lab and library. We’d see each other in passing, but didn’t r mix.
When I graduated eighth grade, life inside the regional middle school/high school didn’t change much. Classes moved to the other side of the building and I went from being the quintessential nerd in middle school to the awkward nerd-hippy in high school. Those qualities rendered me updateable… that and I had paralyzing shyness.
I was like those girls in the makeover movies (pre-makeover). I paraded through the halls with my over-stuffed L.L. Bean backpack and flute. I yearned for the romance the Christian Slater films (sans Heathers) promised. Hell, while learning how to write a children’s play my senior project (a requirement to independently study something you know nothing about, write a paper and give a presentation), I wrote a draft-outline and act one for a romantic film. The lead male was named Chris (as in Christian Slater) and the protagonist was a shy mousy girl from a small town. This kind of voyeuristic dating, dating on paper, was easier for me to wrap my dopey brain around than “hey, I like you” dating. Dating in the real world was as improbable as me being able to hit a three point shot from mid-court. Still, my mom thought she should tell me who and what I should date.
Don’t date a jerk.
Date someone who respects you.
Date someone like you.
When she said, “date someone like you,” she meant, “date someone with your same
values.” Dating someone who was middle class and white was not part of the equation. Race never came up. My family didn’t discussed race in a let’s have a dialogue kind of way. We only discussed people. Race only came up when they told my sister and me how they we
nt to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak and listen to “good music.” One of my takeaways from this repeated story was their incredulity of how they were one of the only white couples there. Another favorite repeated story was when they visited St. Kits with my grandparents the waiter offered to take me outside (when I was having a baby melt-down) and comfort me so they could eat their lunch in peace. Every time I visited my grandma, I saw the portrait of Suzanne that my mom painted when she was a college sophomore. Every now and then they would reminisce at the art professor’s comments, “You’re the first white girl I’ve met that can paint a Black person.” Beyond these glossed-over differences, we didn’t talk about racial differences.
It was my friends and TV that had a larger influence on my understanding of people who
were desirous. Sure, there was Christian Slater, but he was always a little too damaged. Baboon heart, way too in to roses, suicidal introvert… While I tried to figure out dating, I tried to find friends with whom I fit. I had two distinct groups: in junior high, I hung with the mall group of “we don’t have a group city-type.” (By small, I mean 3.) In high school, I migrated to the “studious hodgepodge” of athletes, band geeks, and all-around smarty pants-wise-asses. One of the city-types left, leaving our group at two, the city-type and me. Even though her family lived in town for years and was active in the founding of it, she had the worldly influence that cable and four older siblings brought her.
Since she worked in the cafeteria during lunch, I tried to navigate hanging out with my more-studious-hodgepodge group. The hodgepodge always ate lunch together and I sometimes joined them. Remember that paralyzing shyness? Even though they were friends, I had a deep fear of being rejected if I asked to sit with them and they said no. Most days I’d take lunch and sit outside the band room and do homework… or just sit outside the band room and be sad. On days where I felt slightly braver, I would force myself to sit in the cafeteria. I’d find an empty table where I didn’t have to worry about rejection and sit alone. On some days, other lonely people joined me. Lacking strong social skills, I didn’t always feel welcome to join my friends because I wasn’t expressly invited to join. From 9th to 12th grade, I slowly got over this.
While my understanding of navigating these seemingly complex social interactions grew, the student body grew too. When I entered the ninth grade there were 300 students in the whole high school. By the time I graduated, we had 500. And with this growth, we went from counting the number of non-white students on one hand to needing two. (There were seven.)
I was a natural introvert, shy and a little (very) naïve. It’s a no wonder my teens were tough. Band was a default comfort zone. Not having enough instruments in middle school or high school to play a full score, it was the only class where middle school and high school interacted. It offered forced social interaction with my classmates, half of whom were upperclassmen. It was a little intimidating being surrounded by people with facial hair and boobs, but it was exhilarating to have a tangential friendship with them. Band also provided a uniqueness of heightened racial diversity. The principle drummer (the only drummer for five years) was an Indian-American upperclassman. Intersecting through the years we had a brother and sister of Middle East descent (trumpet and clarinet respectively); a Black guy on bass and one Asian boy, on percussion. By the time I was a senior, there were enough students to support having junior high and high school bands. For the Memorial Day parades, we joined forces and invited the sixth graders to join. That influx brought an Asian girl. She played Second Flute and was next to me. In most places, six non-white students won’t qualify as diverse. But, those 6 non-white students out of a 30-member band gave us 20% diversity.
Outside the band walls, the school’s diversity plummeted to .014%. Consequently, I only saw my school as “just white.”
There wasn’t racial tension in Band. We were just trying to stay on beat. With the lack of diversity in the school and consequent lack of interactions with people who weren’t white, I didn’t have a framework to view race. My family’s “Martin Luther King Jr. is awesome” philosophy didn’t provide a framework. The school’s curriculum didn’t provide one. Race and racial differences weren’t discussed and since race wasn’t discussed openly, understanding the different experiences, philosophies and even religions that race could bring wasn’t discussed either. Scanning the student body, the only races that were apparent were Black and Indian-American. With my naiveté, people that were different, (like the brother and sister of Middle-East descent) were categorized as, “not white” or “they have a good tan.”
I can’t say if this naïveté is good or bad. It’s how I grew up and it’s what made me. Despite the shyness, I always liked people. I knew there was an Arian Signing Society 30 minutes from my home, but I didn’t see racism as a “this is happening now” way of life. The singing society was so far out of my love everyone world, it was as unbelievable as the Tooth Fairy. I continued to compartmentalize racism to history books, movies and the Deep South.
Because of my lack of understanding of racial differences, the differences were glamorized with more city-edge friends. Music videos felt like a roadmap of how to date and become datable. The videos became escapism in those formative years when you want to fit in, but are a little too square peg/round hole. Blessed Union of Souls “I Believe” spoke to my love everyone view. I thought I could be like Lucy and just wrap my phantom boyfriend in a hug and protect him from that mean white world. And while I loved this ballad, a die-hard favorite was Salt n Peppa’s “Shoop.” Despite a lot of the innuendo going over my head, the vaguely pro-feminist lyrics appealed to me. The men featured in the lyrics and in the video were hot, particularly the one categorized as, “A body like Arnold with a Denzel face…” These were the years before YouTube, DVR and any kind of V.O.D. that allowed you to watch your favorite video ad nauseam. Since technology to pause real-time TV didn’t exist, when “Shoop” came on, we would stop everything we were doing and watch the video. If someone had gotten up to get a snack, we’d holler to the next room to make sure no one missed the video.
We were obsessed. We didn’t realize we were doing it, but we started to fetishize all men that weren’t white. They didn’t need to be on TV, it was ALL with a capital A-L-L men that weren’t white. The idea of dating someone who wasn’t white was exciting. These men became trophies. If I dated one, I wouldn’t be merely dating a non-jerk, like my mom had asked for, I would be dating a man like those music vides. I would have made it to the dating zenith.
This more confident future self, would tell people, “Not only did I have a man on my arm, I’m dating outside my race. Take that you racist jerk; I’m open-minded.”
I was an ass.
For years theories among friends and family of why I preferred men who weren’t white to white persisted. They ranged in everything from the visit to St. Kits when I was an inconsolable infant and a waiter had to hold and comfort me to my theory of my own insecurities around my genetic condition that causes brown spots and purple tumors to grow on and in my skin. By dating someone who isn’t white, theoretically, they would look past these imperfections and judge me by the content of my character. Whatever experience made me have my dating preferences and choices, I didn’t see my actions as racist. But truly, judging someone’s different and often darker skin as meritorious and a reason to date is just as wrong as condemning them because their skin is different. Age and life experience bring clarity. I was young and naïve. I thought I was being idealistic. It took me awhile to see what I was doing and that what I was doing was wrong.
Recipe: Black and White Cookies.
Step by step directions:
- Go to the local bakery and and purchase.
- If your bakery doesn’t bake these scrumptious sugar cookies with two types of frosting, Call Zaro’s Bagels in New York City and have them shipped. Nobody does Black and White cookies like Zaro’s.