If he’s white, they’re all black??!

Alethia Grace Cyrus,
Tulalip, WA.

My most striking experience of my own internal “like me is normal” sense came midway through reading The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm by Nancy Farmer. The front cover shows the protagonists, two of whom are Black. The story is set in futuristic Zimbabwe, and I’m pretty sure I understood at the time (though less concretely than I understand it now) that Zimbabwe was part of Africa and most people from Africa are Black.

But I’m following the story, on the edge of my seat, visualizing every instance, and suddenly one of the characters gets described as white.

It was like the floor fell out from under me. My visualization flipped 180 degrees and I understood instantly that if this guy was singularly described as white, then the entire rest of the cast, unless otherwise noted, was non-white, and from the context they were obviously Black. These cute little kids weren’t white kids. The various people they were meeting weren’t white people. Nobody in the entire story looked like me, except for the one detective (and I wasn’t even particularly close to his character). What sort of tricks had my brain been playing on me?

As I learned many years later, it’s natural for our brains to simplify the world, just to be able to record as much data as possible in categories for better sorting and retrieval. And one of the ways it does this is picking out the most obvious distinction. Even babies are better at telling apart people of their own color than people of other colors. So now I don’t feel quite as bad — though I do still feel a little ashamed — when I keep looking at the Black people at the YMCA trying to figure out which one is the one Black guy we helped out that one time, because I didn’t really get an image of him in my head except that he was Black, and that’s just sad. He was really nice, too, and I’d like to be able to smile with recognition when I see him, but I don’t know if I just haven’t seen him or if I’ve seen him repeatedly and not realized it.

Another moment that helped shape my understanding came while I was babysitting a girl, maybe eight or nine at the time, the daughter of a friend from college. Now, my friend was strikingly Hispanic, and her older daughter was a carbon copy of her mom, but this girl, the younger, was freckled and looked so white that I privately wondered about their genetic history until their mom mentioned that they had the same father.

The incident I’m about to describe relates to a study I saw recently, in which kids are shown a set of cartoon figures identical except for the color of their skin, and asked “Show me the intelligent girl,” “Show me the ugly girl,” and so on. Almost invariably, they’ll point to skin tones more like their own for positive traits, skin tones the most different from theirs for negative traits. But at the time this happened, I had no idea about this effect.

On this occasion, I had brought my Brite Music puppets, which offered a nice array of characters of various ethnicities. Among them was one of my favorites, a gorgeous little Black girl (and her brother) from the Dependability story. But when the girl was sorting through the puppets, she made a face, pointed out the Black girl, and said she was ugly.

It was like a stab to my heart, because of how beautiful the little girl puppet looked to me. “Ugly?” I stammered, already jumping to a conclusion I couldn’t believe would come from this girl, child of a dark-skinned family. “What — but — why?”

“Well, don’t you see? She’s BLACK!”

 

Tweets by Michele Norris