The Eyes of Color

I am back in the Midwest after a two-week trip to the Deep South. This trip was the first time in many years I had spent an extended time in the south.

For the past eight years, I have lived in an old neighborhood in St. Paul, MN. Affectionately dubbed “Hoyt Village” our community consists of three moms, one dad and six girls, plus two dogs and a variety of other animals.

One of the moms and I share a number of commonalties. We are both raising daughters later in life, an unintended result of life circumstances neither expected. We are white, our daughters are not. Her twin daughters are from the Democratic Republic of Congo and my teen-aged granddaughter is bi-racial. Both of us spent our childhood and much of our adult life in the Deep South before moving to St. Paul.  We share a rich heritage and history growing up as Southern Baptists during the years of civil rights, which ingrained in us a committed social activism. Daily, we dance the dance of balancing professional careers with being single parents. We have no doubt that God planted us across the street from each other!

Last week Hoyt Village moved temporarily to the beaches of South Carolina. The three moms and six girls joined another female friend at an old beachfront house where we built sand castles, walked the beach, swam in the ocean, followed the ‘footprints to the ocean’ of a newly hatched sea turtle and ate lots of fresh seafood! The other mom in our group hails from SD and her only other visit to the south had been a recent trip to Disney World. South Carolina’s Low Country is quite a different cultural experience than the Black Hills of South Dakota!

Our six daughters range in age from 6 to 14 and represent the variety of possibilities of skin color.  Cierra, my granddaughter and the oldest has skin color that makes me think of café mocha or milk chocolate, the twins are a brilliant ebony hue. My next door neighbor’s girls are fair, the oldest two pale creamy beige and freckled with strawberry blonde hair. Their sister and the youngest of our neighborhood family, has albinism, leaving her skin and hair almost translucent in its absence of color. Each one is incredibly beautiful!

I have said before that race is a cultural construction and not anchored in biology. Race doesn’t matter. It doesn’t and yet, it does. Each of these girls’ life journey is shaped in a variety of ways because of the color of her skin. They are subtly and not-so-subtly judged, evaluated, acknowledged, welcomed, and critiqued because of their skin.

This again became apparent in a conversation I had with Cierra in the middle of our beach trip. Her life experiences have taught her that race matters. One afternoon, after an outing to a nature museum and lunch, Cierra asked this question: “Have you noticed that you only see African Americans doing the dirty jobs here? They pick up the trash, they do the construction work; they buss the tables. I haven’t seen any black people working in nice jobs, like waiting on tables, working as clerks in the stores. Why is that?” How do you even begin to answer that question. In our house, we have a saying, “Here she goes again,” a reference to me kicking into teacher mode with a complicated response to an often simple question. So, I said to her, “Okay, this is one of those times when I’m going to give you the teacher’s response, because there is no simple answer here.” I responded by saying that the playing field of opportunity is not the same for everyone. Some people have greater access to the paths that lead to greater opportunity and more often than not those people have a lighter skin tone. It’s about money or the lack of it, it’s about education or the lack of it, it’s about who you know or don’t know, it’s about history. . . . . As I droned on, Cierra in frustration, interrupted me and said, “The answer is simple, ‘it’s about skin color.’” In her fourteen years, she has already learned that lesson over and over again.