Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Blurred Lines

Growing up, I thought the world’s population fell into 3 categories:
1. Irish or Polish Catholic
2. Italian Catholic
3. Other

In my little Chicago suburb, we have 3 Catholic churches within a 2 mile triangle radius of each other. You were defined by the church you attended. The Polish church said one of three masses a day in Polish. The Irish church’s Father had a thick brogue. Our family bucked tradition, and attended the church with German roots, but was taken over by a mix of the remaining who had quarreled with the other two parishes. Plus, it was an easier walk from our house than the Irish church.

When I was in my early tweens, my Aunt married into an Italian family, and my experience with cultures that didn’t stew cabbage on a regular basis was expanded. I think I loved my new Uncle from the first moment I met him, pronounced by the fact that he is Clare’s Godfather. Still, some in the family whispered about his parent’s off-the-boat Southern Italian bloodline. He’s not white. What on earth were they talking about?

When I went to college, it was the first time I was put in a situation where not everyone I knew fit into categories 1 and 2. My first assigned roommate was Shaniqua from East Saint Louis. Seriously. While I made jokes about we might be confused with each other since our names were so similar, I was terrified to know that the person I would be sharing a small room with for the next year was coming from such a hard area. She never showed up though. Instead, the day before school started I was assigned a new roommate, Emily, who was a transplant from a blessedly soft suburb much like my own. While we were not best friends by any stretch, we were definitely solid enough that she explained what a perm was. If it wasn’t for her, and later Chris Rock, I would be clueless.

When I started taking my Political Science courses, I became friends with a black guy who was a constant in many of my classes. We would study together relatively often, I presume because we were in the small faction that wasn’t already set on the notion of law school. One day, as we sat in an open quad after class going over notes, a group of black girls past us. I was mostly oblivious, but he groaned. Moments later he told me that he couldn’t study with me in the open any more, that the fact we had just been spotted together was going to earn him a lot of grief with his friends. I can’t be seen with a white girl, it ruins my chances with anyone else. What on earth was he talking about? He later apologized, but we never hung out again after that day.

Today, I think I have finally found a place where I can surround myself with like minded people, regardless of race, and more importantly, have been able to incorporate Grace and Clare into environments where they see more that Irish and Polish faces. From the time they were born, they have been cuddled, cared for and honestly loved from faces spanning the world. Mexico, Cameroon, Somalia, Egypt, South Africa, India, Iran, China and Japan on skin. Catholic, Methodist, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim in hearts. I love the fact that culture, outside of our new slice of suburbia, is a constant in their school and lives.

We talk about race occasionally. Most of the time it is about tradition and celebrations, but occasionally, skin color comes up. When playing doll dress up games on my iPhone, Grace often picks black skin colors. She asks if she had dark skin, if she would still have freckles, because dark skin colors are so much more fancy in their pigments; but, then decides that she likes her white skin because she doesn’t want to take the chance of NOT having those freckles anymore.

I know that these experiences won’t stop someone from not wanting to be their friends because of skin color, but I do hope that it isn’t even a factor for friendship for them.

 This post was inspired by The Black Count

Alexandre Dumas' works were heavily influenced by his father, also named Alexandre Dumas. In the biography The Black Count, author Tom Reiss tells how Dumas went from slavery to become the equivalent of a five star general in the French military. Join From Left to Write on October 11 as we discuss the The Black Count. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes


Thien-Kim aka Kim said...

I'm sorry that you never hung out with that guy again. I'm also glad that you had a roommate that was willing to explain her culture to you. I'm so glad to have you as part of my life!

Nancy said...

Thanks for being so honest. I always feel a little embarrased about the lack of diversity in my friendship circle. I grew up in a largely white town, and even though I went to a very diverse college, my roommate assignments were not diverse either. And now, I live in a very white area, where my kids will stand out when they start school, since they are half-Puerto Rican.

Rebecca said...

My Dad's family had the choice of two Catholic churches within 3/4 of a mile of one another, the French Catholic and the Irish Catholic. Since his family was mostly French Catholic they went to that one. However we did have some rogues in the family that decided their Irish blood was thicker than the French and they went to the other church. LOL
I grew up with an AF base nearby so I was used to friends of all colors and sexual persuasions of the rainbow. I love diversity in my friends. said...

I was one of two black girls in my graduating class, and for a long time, my brother and I were the black population of our school. I decided on a historically black university for college, and saw the treatment that Black guys got who kept their white girlfriends. I used to wonder how I would be treated if some of my best friends came to visit me at school. So nice that you are raising your kids to be aware of different races and cultures. Sad when you have what others think dictate who you hang out with. His loss. :)

Shannon said...

Thank you for the comments!

Kim- Oh my goodness, I need to revise the post to add Vietnam to my circle of friends!

Socamom- I think the best part of the way my girls are growing up is that skin color doesn't even really cross their minds as a differentiating factor much more than someone wearing a red vs a blue tshirt.