It’s always interesting when you hear about yourself from someone else’s perspective. Last week, I went out with a woman whose son used to attend the same school one of my kids attends. We knew each other in passing then; we are getting to know each other better now.
Late into our night, after we had consumed quite a bit of alcohol (the devil’s truth serum), she leaned in towards me and divulged, “You are so freaking cool. Nothing like the people at the school’s view of you.” She said a bit more along this line of conversation, but I was tequila anethetised. I wasn’t feeling any pain, nor even recognizing the needles poking the skin.
The next day–sober–I thought about what she said. Evidently, the people at my son’s school view me as stand-offish— at best. I guess, if I spend some time thinking about it, I can somewhat understand.
I have shelved my shuck and jive. I’ve still got the skills, but it takes a lot to make me dance.
Now, don’t get me wrong, most of my life, I have tapped and danced better than Bojangles in a Shirley Temple movie. I knew how to be the cheery, helpful Black person in every organization and job.
I shuffle-ball-chained around my older son’s elementary school. There I volunteered 4-5 days a week. I was that eager mom who raised her hand first when they asked for field trip drivers, teachers’ assistants, someone to lead the bake sale. My husband coached soccer and helped in art class, we hosted huge birthday parties where every classmate was included, and hosted a huge Halloween party where we transformed our home into a haunted house and over 100 people attended. My son was the only Black kid in his grade and I thought that if the staff and parents liked me, they and their kids would be kind to my child. “Look, we Black people aren’t scary. I’m smiling all of the time. And I even made brownies.”
Boy, were we dancing.
But, let me tell you what I soon noticed.
My son had friends, but he was not included in as many playdates and as many birthday parties as his peers. For all of the smiling and shucking and jiving that I did, most times, my husband and I would still be standing by ourselves at Back-to-School Nights and other school events — surrounded by groups of white people laughing and talking amongst themselves. We were not threaded into the fabric of the community.
Why? Most white people are not comfortable having relationships with non-white people. But it‘s typically not because they are racist; they are inexperienced. It is natural human behavior to want to socialize with those with whom we are most comfortable. I live in an area where most of these people have never socialized, lived near, or worked with people outside of their race, so my family and I are foreign and uncomfortable to them, so to speak. “What if I say something that is seen as racist? What if my food isn’t spicy enough? Will they like my music? Why is her hair that way? Will she be mad if I ask? Do I say Black or African American?” It’s just easier to hangout with those most like you—those with whom you can truly relate and relax.
So, though they surely appreciated my shucking and jiving—thought that I was a nice person—I’m not the first person on the list for dinner, nor is my son for a play-date.
Those White people who are comfortable with difference, or who are at least comfortable with being uncomfortable, still surface. Somehow, you meet, you talk, you become friends and it’s easy. And you never even put on your dancing shoes.
So by the time my kid matriculated to his new school, I had thrown away my tap shoes. They are worthless–really. Plus, performing all the time–feeling as if you are constantly on stage– is frankly exhausting.Those genuine relationships occur organically, without anyone feeling the need to jitterbug.
There were a few other Black and minority families – some of them with beads of sweat — jigging, volunteering, working. I understood. And then there were some like me—just us, not dancing and just comfortable being still. I am pleasant, but I’m no longer performing.
So what gives?
I assert that if a woman doesn’t go out of her way to be effervescent and cheery. If she isn’t delivering oranges to the soccer game wearing a huge smile, as if doing it makes her happier than a sale at Nordstom, instead of simply a resting face, she is quickly tagged a bitch.
Now if you add Black to that equation—well now I’m probably downright angry. I believe White people are accustomed to the shuck and jive. The majority of Black people in their world have performed for them—typically because either the white person is in a position of authority or the Black person is in a position of isolation (the only minority in the office, one of few at school or in a neighborhood).
So, I can understand why the parents at my kid’s school have a poor, yet wrong, impression of me. As a woman, as a Black person there are no shades of gray: it’s Black or White. You are either blithe or bitchy.
No one is purposely trying to be mean; they are just making that unconscious jump to conclusions that most people make based on stereotypes. Of this act, I’m certainly guilty. As a consequence, I understand; I understand the dance. I know the moves; but I’ve shelved my shuck & jive. I’m sitting this one out.