Welcome, Mamma Crew! Today is Mamma Thursdays when it’s all about us! The mammas!
Except when it’s not all about us and it’s also about our children, which is most of the time and today it’s about my daughter (who shares the color of my skin), who asked me after listening to Tuesday’s podcast, what it’s like to be a woman of color to be in a white woman’s world?
To be honest with you, when she asked that question, kind of caught my breath because how do you begin to answer that question without it turning into something life-changing? And the answer is, you can’t. There is no way. This is one of those where you have to answer with honesty knowing that it will change everything. So, my honest answer was, it’s like walking down the beach. Everything is good. You feel safe. You feel at peace. It’s wonderful going through your everyday motions and all of a sudden, you’re falling on quicksand. You didn’t see it because it looked just as safe as the other places but there was and now, you’re sinking and for a few seconds, those initial seconds, you don’t know what to do and you’re angry with yourself because you think, “I should know better. How did I get myself in this situation?” At the same time, you know you’re asking yourself those questions because you’re trying to gain control over a situation that you don’t have any control over and it’s an awful sinking terrifying feeling. That’s what it feels like. Part of what makes it so hard is that everything looks completely normal. So, when you hit that quicksand and you’re sinking, you never expected it.
I remember being in high school and I got accepted into the honor’s English class, me and several of my friends (friends I’ve have had for quite a few years actually) but when the girls saw me, their comments didn’t express friendship. Their voices are lowered and they began an intensive discussion regarding my place in the class, “She can’t possibly be here, I mean, why is she here? You know she hasn’t been in the United States that long. I bet you anything she’s going to be the first one kicked out.” “Hi! How are you? It’s so nice to see you here! What did you get on the test to get yourself in here? Oh, you got a 4 and a half? Well, 5 is the highest score. Are you sure it was a 4 and a half?” “Oh, I didn’t grade the test. I didn’t assign the scores. All I did was apply.” But hey, what can I tell you? Other than I felt like the rug have been pulled under me. And it was the girls, the boys were busy talking about my ass, my round ample bottom. But hey, sexism in our society is another podcast.
Now, you would think that things would have changed but quite a few years later, when I decided to go into the PhD program, I found myself in the very same situation. Here I was in one of the finest institutions in the United States in a very culturally, racially diverse state and I walked in and the women are smiling at me and everything is hunky-dory and then I go to talk to someone else. The other Hispanic male in the cohort and we can overhear their conversation despite the fact that they are in the corner and they were whispering, “Oh my god! They let in two Mexicans and a black guy. Can you believe the black guy got his bachelor’s degree from UCLA? I bet it had to do with a formative action, I mean he couldn’t possibly be that smart. Do you think he’s that smart?” And when the professor said, “Look to your left, look to your right. Those students would not be here. They will not be graduating with PhD by the end of this program.” People didn’t look to their left; they didn’t look to their right. All the women looked at me then they looked at the Hispanic guy and then of course everybody looked at the black guy. Out of the three of us, the Hispanic decided the program was not for him and the African American male and myself did earn our PhDs. But it was hard because we heard the snide comments all of the time. All of the time. Now lucky for me, I’ve always been kind of an oppositional child, if you tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to do it but it is so grinding to constantly hear the people around you talking about you as though you are incapable, as though you didn’t earn your spot. It’s hard. It’s hard and I cannot deny that as much as I would like to because it would mean that my children would not have to deal with these kinds of issues. Unfortunately, I cannot. I worry about all three of my daughters when it comes to dating.
I remember back to one of my boyfriends. We dated during the PhD program and after dating for a while we decided that we wanted to take the relationship to the next level. Things were getting serious. We were dating exclusively. The time that we spent dating was growing so we wanted to introduce one another to our families and it just so happened that his family’s schedule opened up before mine did and I was invited to one of the formal barbeques and meet the family, get together. So, we get to his parents’ home. We get out of the car. We get to the door and his mother opens the door and as she’s whipping her face from the inside of the house to the outside of the house, she’s like, “Hi! It’s such a pleasure to…” Silence. Absolute dead silence. I wish I had a video of this woman’s face for you. The way her features contorted between shock and horror. Her son passed right through her. His dad was coming and he was saying hello to dad and dad saw me. I have to give it to that man. He had a lot more control than his wife. His face went perfectly still. I was not invited in. Mom never stepped aside which means that I cannot enter that door. She didn’t have to say it. I knew it. She didn’t want me there. I was not welcome. Dad asked to speak with his son privately. Mom turned around without saying a word to me. So, I was staring at the back of her head and I knew, I knew in my heart of hearts, in my mind of minds, I knew exactly what is going to happen. They were going to ask him to make me disappear. So, I turned around and I went to the car knowing exactly what was coming. He was going to feel terrible. His parents were going to say awful things to him. His perception of his parents is going to be shattered and I was going to have to make him feel better when I myself was shattered. When I couldn’t erase the picture of her mother’s face from my brain because it’s branded to this day there when I wanted to cry and at the same time, I was so angry. How? How could these people have created such a wonderful guy? I knew it was generational differences or at least I knew it was part of it. Just like I knew I was going to end that relationship because I knew I couldn’t take it any further. You don’t marry just the man or the woman. You marry the entire family and I did not want to marry that family. But hey, at least that time at wasn’t threatened of being arrested.
There was a time that we were turning from Disney and we stopped on a fast-food restaurant and we were so overpacked, our van was so overpacked that I put our piece of luggage just beneath the van so that I could take some of the things and I could take care of the girls and I left the piece of luggage there. We ate, we got back in the car and off we went. In our next stop, I quickly realized, I had left the piece of luggage that had all of my clothing in it. Oh yes, I had some choice words for that moment, none of which I find necessary to repeat here, so you’re not to worry about that. So, I decided to stop at one of my favorite retailers. I had never had a problem in that retail institution. I was about to learn that a different state means a whole set of different challenges. So, I walked in. I was in a rush because the kids were in the car and I purchased what I needed and then we went to our hotel room because we had chosen to drive to Florida and the return trip was going to be three days long. Everything was fine except that guess what, during the summer, I had put on a few pounds and I needed to get a bigger set of jeans. So, the next morning, my husband who is pretty cool about these kinds of things, (my dad never was), said ok we’ll just go back to the store, you can get off and you know just change the jeans. So, I get into my favorite retailer, go to the cashier and I said, “Hey, what do I need to do to exchange these jeans? Here’s the receipt.” She looked at me up and down, seemed deliberately slow in responding to me but I was like, okay, sometimes when my radar goes up, it says something’s not right, I really try hard to give people the benefit of the doubt. Which we shouldn’t, I don’t know why I did. Because I should be listening to my radar that tells me something’s not right, don’t trust it, be on your guard. So, she takes the receipt and she starts punching the numbers in the cash register and she tells me, the number on the ticket on the jeans is not reflected on any of the numbers on the sales ticket. I’m like, “I don’t know why. I got it here yesterday.” And she’s like, “Really? You don’t know why?” “Really. I don’t know why. I got them here yesterday. As you can see from the sales ticket.” “Excuse me.” She picks up the phone and she call, she didn’t say anything that I thought was overtly racist that indicated that I was a kind of a threat to her and I’m like, “Could you please look more carefully?” And she’s like, “Ugh, okay.” She’s looking at the ticket and I’m just, you know, waiting for her and there’s a security coming, a security guard coming my way and I’m thinking to myself, “Don’t be paranoid, don’t be paranoid, don’t be paranoid.” “Excuse me ma’am. What seems to be the problem?” “I don’t have any problem sir. I picked the wrong set of jeans and now I’m coming to exchange them.” And she’s like, “Well, but the numbers are not on the ticket and now I’m getting a little frantic and you can hear it in my voice. I said, “I don’t know why they’re not on the ticket, I was just in here yesterday.” And I’m thinking, “Oh my god! My husband is outside with my daughters in the car, they’re going to see their mother get arrested for trying to exchange a pair of pants in this retailer!” And he says to me, “Ma’am, let’s go talk about this in a private place, in a more private place.” And by now, I’m shaking. I’m thinking, “Yah! You’re accusing me of shoplifting! Seriously!” I’ve had a credit card for this establishment for I don’t know how many years. I come in here to the cashier and she calls the security on me and now he wants to talk to me in a private place. My kids are going to see their mother get arrested. Now, one of the other sales ladies calls the security guard by name and says, “Oh, you know, it’s not a problem. There’s no problem here because of the sale, the ticket number rings differently. It rings as such and such. The original sales lady looks at me and goes, “Ugh! Well, how was I supposed to know that?” Okay. You work here, I don’t. How was I supposed to know that? So, I am shaking, shaking at the idea that I could have been arrested and hold off in front of my kids because all of those memories of my girlfriends are coming back to me, in which they’ve talked about how they were pulled to a private place and the next thing you know, the police is hauling them and handcuffed them to the front door. Yes, that’s happened to a couple of my highly educated girlfriends who are also women of color. So, the second sales lady says to me, “You know ma’am, I apologize for the confusion.” The security guard just walks around and walks away and the original sales lady is still looking at me as though I was some kind of an infectious disease. The lady says, “Ma’am, just come over to my register,” of the second sales lady and she says to me, “I know exactly why she assumed that you have stolen it. She’s a racist. Blip. Blip. Blip. I am so sorry ma’am. Please accept my sincerest apologies.” And I’m shaking so badly. I’m like, “Thank you, thank you. Just give me the pants. I just want to get out of here. I just want to go, be in the car with my babies.” I felt bad I didn’t listen to her more but I was so scared and angry. Those quicksand moments when you just didn’t expect it and they hit you out of nowhere and it keep hitting you through your lives.
One of my girlfriends been talking about how she has been recently called into the principal’s office because during a PTA meeting, she had disagreed with another one of the mothers and my friend is hysterically funny when she’s telling the story. I know I can’t do it justice but here she is, she’s this dumpy, short, fat woman, having a difference of opinion with this athletic, tall, blonde and she’s like, “You know, I didn’t think anything of it. Next thing I know, I get a call saying, I need to go to the principal’s office and there is the president of the PTA and they’re threatening to remove me from the PTA because the woman felt threatened and she’s like, good grief! (okay, she used a couple of expletives!) I didn’t use obscene language. I didn’t threaten her physically. I didn’t say anything other than I didn’t agree with using bake sale funds for that purpose and she has me hauled off to the principal’s office so that they can talk about how threatening I am.” She says, “And the only thing I think of, that threatening was the fact that I’m a black woman!”
Yeah. I know, I know that feeling. She says to me, “Have you ever noticed that when a woman of color has a difference of opinion with you, they will show up to your house. They will have conversation with you. They will tell you, “I don’t agree with you because of X, Y, and C, and it doesn’t become a personal attack.” I was like, “Uhhh, yeah.” She goes, “But a white woman, wants to meet you in a neutral place. Why? What are you going to do to her?”
I started laughing. I knew exactly what she was talking about and she says, “And my favorite is when they bring the husband.” I burst out laughing. She’s like, “Has a woman of color ever brought her husband to discuss a parental issue with you?”
Nope. Never. Not when I was living with my boyfriend and I was bringing up his kids. Not now that I have my four kids. Nope. Never. With neither set of kids, never has a woman of color asked to meet in a neutral place or brought their husband to one of those meetings. She’s right! Only white women do that. Why? What is so threatening about us women of color, that we must be met in a neutral place or the hubby needs to come along? I really don’t know. I don’t know and that’s even funnier for me because as an introvert, most of the time, even when I’m arguing on a point that I’m confident about, inside I feel like Sheldon Cooper — too many people here, too many people! I really need to go home, too close contact. So, most of the time, I’m stressed. So, what makes me so threatening? I really, I don’t know. But yes, I have been told by white women that they find me intimidating.
I’ve been told that to my face, “You are very intimidating.” I’ve never heard those words from a woman of color though.
I asked my friend, “Do you find me intimidating?”
She’s like, “No, please.” And of course, she laughs the riotous laughter she has and I realized, nope, I have never been around a woman of color who finds me intimidating.
In fact, some of them tell me, “Girl, you need to speak up more!”
I think some women think I speak my mind too often and I really don’t need to go there. So, it isn’t the difference. It’s a palpable difference. Just as she brought up another excellent point during this conversation which is that, whenever she speaks with a group of white women, she always finds her words really interpreted and when those words get back to her, what she said, what she meant has completely changed.
She calls it the, “Racial Telephone.”
You know, did you ever play telephone at school where you say something at the beginning of the classroom and something completely different by the time it’s over? It reaches the end of the classroom. Except in this case, there’s a racial component to it because whatever it is that you said is interpreted as something threatening, something unjust, something unfair.
She said to me, “Do you ever feel that the only way white women can accept us, is if we agree with them or when we agree with them?”
And I wanted to say to her, “Stop making me think. I don’t want to think about this anymore.” I don’t agree that all white women are like this. That would be like saying no women of color are like whatever. It’s the subtly racist white women because there’s a big difference between the overtly racist. I can handle those. They let you know immediately where you stand and you know to get out of the way because you’re not safe. You need to get out of there. It’s the subtle prejudices. The subtle discriminatory practices especially in social places. They certainly make sure that you’re not allowed to disagree. These types of women interpret any disagreement that you have with them as something threatening, something dark, something ominous and they let you know immediately that you, and your independent butt do not belong there. They won’t come out and say it. They’ll look at you, they won’t respond to you, they won’t include you in the conversations, they whisper, and they gossip. Oh boy do they gossip! Then, when it gets back to you, you can’t say anything about it because even though there’s enough information for you to know who it was who started this gossip chain, they claim they never did it and since they didn’t do this to your face, you’re not supposed to be able to call them on it, and if you do call them on it, you’re an awful human being. You just confirmed this idea that you are ominous and threatening after all you have the social obligation to give them the benefit of the doubt. But let me tell you, with this type of women, that social obligation does not go both ways because if one in their group talks poorly about a woman of color, everybody is going to believe them. They put just enough truth in there to make their lies believable and even though some of these women have been in your home, they’ve shared experiences with you, it doesn’t matter. You’re the outsider and they’re going to believe the members of their group. There’s nothing you can do about it and frankly, I don’t know that you should or at least I don’t feel like I should. They just let me know who they are and no matter what kind of person I thought they were prior to that situation, I instantly became disinterested. Like I said, I’m an introvert. I’m not that interested in the people in the first place. So, as Sheldon would say, kicking somebody out of the social group always seems like a great idea to me. Okay? I like to keep that
social group small. But I can certainly appreciate that this will be very frustrating to an extrovert.
Now, if you ask any of these ladies if there was a racial component to this day, they would say, “Absolutely not. This had nothing to do with race. It had to do with this. It had to do with that.” But if you ask a woman of color, who shares my experiences, and most of them do, they will tell you, “We know, we know. We feel it.”
Full disclosure, here comes the bad words, my girlfriend said, “The bitch who it is, that you have to put up with because of the kids.” And I know exactly what she’s saying. I know exactly what she’s saying. You don’t want your kids to be left out. You don’t want your kids to be excluded even though you know in your heart of hearts that it’s going to happen but you try to maneuver to the quicksand because of them.
But she asked me a very fair question, “How do you stop being you?” You can’t. There’s only so much you can compromise without other people compromising too and at some point, you’ve had enough and then nice thing about my kids is that they’re becoming teenagers this year, at least the older, the girls, I no longer have to hang out with the mothers in order to have my kids be friends with their friends. Yes, I still like to know who they are but it’s a different dynamic when the kids are young, you are stuck being there on the play dates. You are stuck seeing women that you know don’t like you simply because of the color of your skin.
But you know what I think is really interesting? It is when somebody thinks of the special Mexican and they’ll say it to my face, “Oh, you’re so different than other Mexicans.” Sometimes, I can’t help myself. You notice that dark sarcastic sense of humor that I have,
“Really? How am I different?”
“Well, you’re highly educated. Most Mexicans are not.”
“How many Mexicans do you know and how do you know that most Mexicans are not educated?”
“Well, you see them on the news.” I have to tell you my husband loves the news; I hardly see any Mexicans on the news so I don’t know what they’re talking about. So, there you have it. I’m a special Mexican. I’m different from all the other educated Mexicans here in this world, didn’t you know that?
Or they say things like, “Oh you’re not here illegally.”
“No, I’m not. I’m a US citizen.”
“Well, see you’re different and all of the other Mexicans who are here illegally, well, you know what I mean.”
Yeah, I get the message loud and clear. I know exactly what you mean. You’re just not saying it because you know it’s not acceptable for you to say it. You know it. It’s not acceptable for you to say it so you’re fighting around a way to get the message across. I get it. Yes.
It isn’t always that way of course. I do want to make that perfectly clear. For example, I’d like to give out a shout out to my Caribbean book club. Oh my god, these ladies are the absolutely most wonderful group of ladies I’ve ever met. I love being in their company. It’s such a safe place. No matter what difference of opinion you have, it’s always exciting to enter the room and argue about different points of views, different perspectives. There has never been a time where I have been made to feel uncomfortable, I’m unwelcomed or different. I’m one of the ladies when I’m with them. One of the ladies that loves books, loves to read, and loves to talk about books. And I had some great professional experiences, have great friends of diverse, ethnic, socio-economic backgrounds. So, I have a wonderful life! But there’s no denying that there’s quicksand out there. No denying that. No denying I’m going to fall into it and I’m going to feel terrible. I’m going to be frightened. And there’s no denying that my children have to go through that experience too.
So, that is my answer to the question. You have to be careful of the quicksand out there but you always have to be true to yourself and proud of who you are because in the end, that is what’s more important than anything else. Now, I know that’s not a perfect answer. The world’s on fire right now and we’re dealing with some very complex issues with no easy solutions and some people proposing some crazy solutions. Some people who are very angry. But it is a problem that we have to face head on as individuals, as families, as states, as communities, and as a country. But more than ever, I confess, I feel like an imperfect parent because I can’t give my children perfect solutions or provide them with a perfect world.
If you feel like me, an imperfect mother, in this incredible journey that’s motherhood, please subscribe to our blog or podcast. For links and resources, please visit our website. Till next time. Toodles!
One of my daughters wanted to know what it was like to be a woman of color in a white woman’s world, forcing me to think of my experiences. It’s like walking on a beach where everything is normal and suddenly, yes, suddenly, you are sinking in quicksand! It is a terrifying, infuriating, and disappointing experience, one that you cannot avoid regardless of how careful you might be. The truly important thing to me is being true to myself and teaching my daughters, my children, to do the same!