Sunday, October 25, 2015

Today I took Moses with me to the store. He's three, so as long as he's not throwing a tantrum he's pretty adorable. We walked in the door and jetted for the produce section. He spotted the banana display and exclaimed, "Oh! Look! Bananas! I LOOOOOOVE Bananas!" The produce guy chuckled and a few of the other customers smiled at his enthusiasm. We continued our trek up and down the aisles, he kept the entertainment lively. When we passed the cheese, he grabbed for a package that had cows on the front. "Oh, I NEED this for pweee-school. I LOVE cheese AND cows, MOOOOO!"

Again, he's three. He's getting taller by the day, but I can still stuff him into the seat on the shopping cart. He goes where I go and hollers at me whenever I walk more than five feet away. We might not look like we belong together, but a quick listen to our interactions will confirm that we are indeed a family.

We had checked everything off our list and headed toward the cashiers. (Added for context- we were in the middle of the wine section in a Trader Joe's, there was no candy in sight) An older white man was blocking the aisle so we maneuvered the cart to squeeze by. He looked at us for a minute and then said, "Hi little boy, I bet I know what you like to eat!" I imagined he would say apples, as Moses was working on a giant honey crisp we had picked up at the beginning of our trip. Or perhaps yogurt, as Moses was just explaining to me that while he LOVES stwaaaaberry yogurt SO MUCH! he can wait until we get home to use a spoon. Instead, the man quipped up, "Chocolate! Ha ha ha!"

I'm not sure what actually went down in the next few seconds, but it felt like someone hit the slow motion button. I think my eyes narrowed and my jaw dropped. I was at a complete loss for words, imagining that I must have misheard. I wanted to say something but the man was still just chuckling to himself. I spun around to put as much distance as possible between my son and this stranger, and that was the end.

Now, I can think of a thousand things to say to him. But its too late and it might have been better to keep my mouth shut anyways. The fact of the matter is that my son experienced racism today. As a three year old. As a cute little innocent child in the grocery store with his white mother there to remove him from danger. I am terrified to think what he will experience as a 17 year old boy or 25 year old man. The thing with racism today is that it can be so subtle. It's in a joke and a flippant comment. And what scares me even more is that people don't always realize they're being racist, they think they're just striking up a conversation and being funny. They think they're just telling a joke. That its harmless. Not thinking that telling a kid he has dark skin because he eats chocolate could mean that his skin could be white if he didn't eat chocolate. And if his skin was white, he would look more like his parents and his life might be a little easier. And that means that being white might actually be better than being black...

One of the many replies that has come into my mind since this episode is, "Wow, sir, its amazing your skin is so white considering you so full of shit." (Again, probably better my brain went into shock mode.) But even as I consider saying this out loud, I'm struck by how this statement could be received. As a white woman, I could probably say it, be scoffed at and continue on my way. If a black mother said it to that white man, I wonder how it would have unfolded. I wonder if they would've said she was "just running her mouth and should've known better" like they have about Sandra Bland and Eric Garner. If my 19 year old, 6 foot 3, dark skinned Moses had said it, what would have happened? Would the store manager have defended him or called the cops? And if the later, then what? If my 18 year old white son had said it, would there have been consequences. I would venture to say that Sam and I could get away with it. That's white privilege.

I know I've thrown the terms racism and white privilege out before, but never with a direct connection to our family. This is not abstract or something the media blew out of proportion. I'm sharing this experience today to put a name to it. And to encourage you, as a friend, to be aware of racial tension around you. Be an ally to people of color.  Even if its in the grocery store and someone says something totally ridiculous or flat out racist, call them on it. If you see people being treated differently for no reason, say something about it. Think about these issues. Talk about them with your friends and your children. That's how we start to bring equality and unity into our communities.

Later this afternoon, Moses and I were in the kitchen cooking together. He was stirring the bowl as I dumped ingredients in. I asked, "Hey, Mosey? Do you think we go together?" He giggled and said, "Yes! Mama!" (he may not know he word "duh," but was definitely channeling it) I looked at him, "Why? Why do you think so?" He looked a little confused, looked up at the ceiling, then exclaimed, "Because we're a team!" He dropped the whisk into the bowl and threw his arms around my neck. "We're a team, mama!" We are a team, no stupid comment or ignorant stranger can take that. And I'm pretty sure its time for humanity to start getting on the same team.


Thursday, October 1, 2015

It's quite a strange thing to live at a hotel. Had I planned to stay in Kinshasa for three months, it would've been quite a treat. My floors mopped everyday, my bed made, my kitchen cleaned. But instead of enjoying these luxuries, I felt really useless.

I wanted to explain to Carlos that I could make my own bed and sleep in the same sheets for more than a day.  Tomas didn't need to wash and iron my bedding every morning. If Joseph would show me where the broom was, I could clean up the corn flakes Jephté dumped on the floor. Sure, I couldn't handle the cockroaches and would run outside squealing to Samba and Patrick to come kill the <insert mental image of me flapping my arms like i'm an insect>. To which they would nod "yes madame," smirk, come into my room and gently lift the little creatures up into the palms of their hands to release back into the wild. (I suspect they did this knowing the bugs would find their way back into the room, thus providing endless hours of entertainment of me freaking out)

I wanted to tell them that at home, I clean my own house. I do laundry. I cook real meals. I clean my dishes and take out my trash. I drive myself around, in my own car. I even pump my own gas. There were a lot of things I wanted to tell the staff at the hotel, people I wanted to call my friends, but I don't think that word is quite right. Even if we had shared the same language, I don't think it all would've translated.

What they saw was only a part of me. This woman who kept telling them she was definitely, maybe going home tomorrow, but who never actually left. A woman whose brow was furrowed more often than not and who couldn't quite relax. The madame who came and went all day long, but never seemed to go anywhere. The woman who sometimes paid the Pablo driver to take her to Shoprite, just because she knew he would put American music on in the car. Somehow lil Wayne and Bob Marley made her feel a little less homesick. Ultimately, I was a woman who made it possible for them to stay employed.

One evening, I was in a particularly foul mood. Nothing had happened, which meant I would be spending another weekend in Congo. I was walking around with J, pacing the grounds like we did. The boss man had gone home for the day and a few of the staff were hanging out. They called out to their little friend who returned a big smile for their attention. "Ahhhhh! Jeffffff-tay!" they cried. These men were fathers too. They spent their lives at the hotel, rising with the sun to take four different busses across the city to work. They stayed until it was dark, only departing when the guests had no need of their services. They would take turns sleeping at the gate, come mosquitos or pouring rain. All this to send their children to school and put food on the table.

Yet on this particular evening, they were indulging in some local concoction that left them very happy and relaxed. When I saw one of them stuff a small baggie into a pocket, I stiffened. I turned away and dragged J back into our room. I felt angry. I didn't understand how they could give up so much of their lives and then waste what little disposable income they did have on that garbage.

I felt resentment rising up. These people I had come to trust and admire weren't quite so one dimensional as I had made them in my head. They had their reasons- reasons I had no context to even attempt to understand. Though the voice in my head was judgement, "how dare he? doesn't he understand? how selfish!" I had to let it go.

These people spent more time with me and my son than they did with their own families every day. My son received their hugs and playful tosses in the air, while their sons were frozen images on their phone screens. Photos taken on one of the two days they got off each month. These people made decisions I will never have to make because of my privileged circumstances.

I wonder how often we do that. We only see part of a person, we only understand the face that they show us in our limited interactions. And yet we judge. We think we understand so we impart and dominate. We think the way we do things is superior, so we diminish the value of the other. Ultimately, we end up widening the chasm between the humans we most want to connect with. Those who share our moments and inhabit our space.

Sometimes we need to dwell on moments like the last one I treasured with the staff from the hotel. The day Mara honked the horn on the truck two times and Samba swung the gate open. He peered deep into my eyes through cracked window, he knew I had been to DGM again. A smile broke across my face and he cheered. Pascal stuck his arm out of the window and gave a thumbs up. Carlos jumped up and down, Pablo gave a fist pump and started dancing. Patrick grinned and I'm pretty sure Jacques teared up, though he would never admit it. Coco Xavier bounced up and down like only a happy grandfather can do. Even Joseph smiled and Tomas came running across the yard. "Jephté! You are American now!!!" Kerén started singing, all the work ceased and celebration erupted. Our victory had become theirs. In the same way my sorrow had become theirs the day I had left without Jephté five months prior. The day Carlos gave me a hug, the day Samba shook his head with misty eyes. The day Pablo gave me his words in English, "I am sorry, Madame. So sorry." The day Vanessa let her tears spill as she said good bye to my baby.

Life is too short to miss out on these moments. Sometimes we just need to simmer down and let the guy who's high take care of the cockroach before we give ourselves a aneurysm trying to smash it with a broom. Sometimes we just need to be human together.

*but seriously, the cockroaches. eeeek!

** to clarify, i believe there are moral and ethical issues that we must fight for,  
but i think there are a whole lot more silly things we need to let go of. 

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