The Know Betters & Do Betters of Racial Micro-aggressions #1: “Where Are You From?”

I’m starting a new series. The working title was originally something like, “Seriously! What is Wrong With Me? How Can I Be Such An Ass? I’m a Thinking Human Being Who Parents Haitian Children. There is Simply No Excuse! Do Better, Paula! Do Better! I’m Ashamed of Me!”

Too wordy?

How about just The Know Betters & Do Betters of Racial Micro-aggressions?

I wish I could show up here at this blog and write out all the lessons we white people require to be better fellow humans to people of color in this world. I wish I had grown up in a home absent of racism (I did not, though I know white people who did and they are still learning too). I wish I had more clearly understood all the complexities of systemic racism before adopting children from Haiti. And, mostly, I wish I could take the burden of teaching such lessons away from people of color entirely. I can see the toll it takes on my kids. That shouldn’t be the case. It really should be up to us white people to figure these things out, to know better and then to do better.

Despite what I want to think are my best efforts, though, I am failing and learning daily. I, like so many of you, my fellow white people, have so much more to learn.

Maybe we can learn a little together and then do a little better together — until all those little betters add up to some significant, culture-changing big betters.

With that, I give you the first post of the series:

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“Where Are You From?”

The family and I sometimes take a local West African dance class together. My son drums, my girls dance, and I, with my 40-something rheumatic body, do something I like to call “convulsion yoga” (trademark pending). My husband looks on. Dance scares him.

Recently, we had the most amazing teacher, Ms. Kara, dancer, singer, song-writer, choreographer. She is masters-level brilliant in African-based dance. Throughout the class, she encouraged us to focus on feeling the music and embracing the movements of our bodies over attempting perfection. I hardly noticed that I was more agitating and percolating than dancing out there. She also regaled us with a plethora of techniques, dance, and cultural facts from all over the globe.

Truth be told, I had myself a little student-teacher crush on Ms. Kara.

So, naturally, like any person vying for the spot of teacher’s pet, I went ahead and offended her.

[Actually, I have no idea if she was truly offended. But she had every right to be.]

I dished out one of the most fecund of all micro-aggressions, one my kids face far too often.

“Where are you from?” I asked her after class.

“Los Angeles,” she replied. “I drove down for the day.”

Now, I should have stopped there. I asked. She answered. “If they don’t volunteer more information, it’s none of our business.” That’s what I’m always telling my kids. Because I am a good mother and manners matter to good mothers. Even, apparently, good mothers with horrible manners — like the ones I had that night at Ms. Kara’s dance class.

She was such a phenomenal dancer and knew so much about African and Caribbean culture and history that I just had to know if there was more to the story. In my mind, my feeble mind that has literally walked through scenarios just like this with my own kids, I thought I was complimenting her somehow by digging deeper.

[SPOLIER ALERT: Proclaiming that you are sure someone does not belong on that spot where you are existing is rarely a compliment]

“No,” I started, much to my present horror. “Where are you really from? Originally, I mean. Where did you learn these African dances?”

PEOPLE! My children were born in Haiti (Did I mention that?). They hear questions like this constantly, even though they are American citizens who speak perfect, unaccented English. Even at times when there is no real need for anyone to know that information. Occasionally, the question feels innocuous to them, like when everyone is sharing their background information. But much of the time, it feels like a direct “othering” bomb. It screams, “You are clearly not like me so I am going to assume you are foreign!” That’s what I was telling Ms. Kara that night that she had given me so much on the dance floor.

My new she-ro looked at me with the patience of a Cheetah walking a sloth. “Really, I am from Los Angeles. South Carolina before that,” she said.

Now, you would think a person who writes about race, who, you know, really doesn’t want to screw up her own black children or hurt anyone else, might have just shut her mouth right then and there.

I DID NOT!

PEOPLE! I did not shut up.

My 15 year old daughter was standing over me, looking at me like she had found me in the middle of the night, running naked in the yard, covered in honey and chanting, “I am Spartacus! I am Spartacus!!!”

But, damn it! I was simply complimenting my new bestie teacher on her amazing skills and knowledge of African cultures. “Are you, like, originally from Africa or the Caribbean?” I asked, my daughter releasing her breathe in what must have been the longest, most silently profane, breath I have ever heard.

What? I stared back at my daughter a moment, trying to communicate with my eyes. I was trying to tell her that I thought for sure that with all that brainy knowledge, she couldn’t JUST be from the United States…

Oh.

Well, shit.

That explains my daughter’s stare piercing the very core of my being with the laser fire of a gazillion years of stupid white people fueling her fury.

As my daughter later explained to me, calmly and with far more love that I deserved, my adamant questions were predicated upon 3 really crappy presumptions:

  1. This black person before me was not like me and so had to be foreign because, you know, only people like me are really Americans.
  2. This super brilliant, incredibly talented black person before me must clearly know so much only because she grew up in the cultures about which she taught and absorbed her information through culture; not because she is just really smart and well-educated.
  3. There is something inferior about people of African descent born in America.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you me: a totally hypocritical blow-hard.

I knew better. Had Ms. Kara and I actually become friends (like if, you know, I hadn’t offended her with my racial micro-aggression), and had she relayed a similar exchange to me from someone else, I would have been outraged on her behalf! Outraged!

The fact is that I did KNOW better.

But I did not DO better. Not that time.

I allowed a lifetime of being cloaked in white privilege and swimming steadily through a tide of systemic racism to drown out everything I have learned while parenting black children.

And I suck for it. I messed up. I ate dirt. Blew chunks. Screwed the proverbial pooch.

There is no excuse for my ignorance. None.

I am sorry, Ms. Kara. You are the best dance teacher I have ever had. You made me feel pretty and light and rhythmic and I re-paid you with crap. Micro-aggressive crap. I apologize.

Next time I wonder where a person is from, I will check my assumptions, scold those assumptions if required, and for reals shut the heck up.

I know better. I will do better.


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