My first, real boyfriend experience happened my freshman year of high school. He was a sophomore and about the cutest guy I had ever met. Funny, sweet, adventurous, athletic, and popular. I knew him in middle school but was not confident enough to speak to him beyond the scope of friendship. He had a lot of very pretty, popular girlfriends and I felt inadequate. But then we started spending time together the summer before my freshman year. My friend’s parents owned a small amusement park where we’d all hang out during the summers and guess who started working there? You could say I spent more time at the bumper cars that summer than most. By July, we were officially a couple.
“He’s not white,” she said. “Your dad will not be okay with this.”
I literally remember thinking, seriously? It’s 1980. You’ve got to be kidding. He was half white, half Mexican, with very light skin. But my dad grew up in the South, early 50s, the son of an old school, southern preacher. Probably not wanting to know the truth and trying to find a way to make her daughter happy, my mom said, “He looks about the same color as our neighbors from Greece. He must be Greek.” Then she paused to ponder. “Yes, that’s definitely what he is. Greek. Your dad likes those neighbors. He’ll be fine with that.”
Even my 14 year old self knew that she was telling me to pass my new boyfriend off as Greek instead of Mexican. Wow. I wonder now what might have happened had I revealed the boy I liked before this one was black. I explained the situation to my boyfriend, apologized for my father and the need to lie, and he agreed to play along in order to date me. I dreaded the day it finally came up and hate thinking about it even now. I can still see his face, battling mixed emotions, looking from me to my parents, then nodding his head in agreement when my mom said, “You’re Greek, right?”
Later, when we were alone, his eyes filled with hurt when we talked about it. He looked at me, pained from denying his heritage, and said, “You have no idea how much I wanted to say, ‘No. I’m Mexican.’” That moment, when I witnessed someone I cared about experience racism – for my sake, no less, in my own home – burned into my memory like few others. My mom’s expression, my boyfriend’s wavy, Michael Landon hair, those distressed brown eyes, that golden skin under his yellow tank top, the velvet wallpaper behind him – I can see and feel it all as if it were yesterday. In that moment I knew neither heritage nor race should ever be a factor in assessing a person’s character.
After my “Greek” relationship ended, our previous friendship resumed and he and I remain friends to this day. Even though the romance peaked and passed, I don’t think two people can experience something as powerful as that moment and not be forever connected in some way, even if only through Facebook. Interestingly enough, it was about a year later that I had my own first experience with racism.
Our high school was pretty ghetto and our student body was diverse, to say the least. We had more than our share of poverty and hate but there were plenty of amazing people, as well. I remember a few in particular. Gracing our hallways walked a tall, dark skinned, beautiful, black girl, always so impeccably dressed, it became a daily ritual to find her just to see what she was wearing. Kim carried herself with elegant poise, exuding self confidence, yet she was always kind and polite. Everyone knew she was no nonsense, diplomatic beyond her years, and bound for success – different than most of us who would probably live and die in that same city. She was total package and easily could have acted superior but she never did. Secure in her person, she was probably the first student to wear a rabbit fur coat to school – a hot trend in the early 80s that most of us couldn’t afford. When she walked by in that coat everyone stared in awe. I loved the way she looked in that coat. She just had this presence about her (even without the coat).
One of my friends was an only child and pretty spoiled. Imagine my jealousy when I discovered her mom bought her a rabbit fur coat. Weeks went by yet she never wore it to school. She was too shy. Well, of all the things I’ve been called in my life, shy was never one of them. So I asked to borrow it and wore it the next day. I remember my excitement as my mom dropped me off in front of the school. I climbed out of the car and glided up the steps, through the doors, and slowly modeled that coat for all to see. People turned and stared but the reception was not what I expected. Sneers, pointing, giggles, eye rolling, and whispers by the black students who dominated the entrance. Uncomfortable glances by the white students passing through. I was so confused. Finally, this one, particularly unbearable, black kid said, “Bitch, who do you think you are in that fake fur coat?” We’ll call him Eddie since I truly can’t remember his real name. Pretty sure he’s in prison now. With my chin up, I assured him it wasn’t fake and invited him to touch it and see for himself. He waved me off. I reminded him I was not the first girl to wear a fur coat to school. He stopped and said, “Bitch, please. Kim is black. She can wear a fur coat. You can’t.” People started laughing out loud. This guy was as mean as anyone I had ever met.
Holding my ground, I raised my voice and asked, in the most accusatory tone, “So are you saying I’m not allowed to wear what I want simply because I’m white?!”
Over the silence he said, “That’s right, bitch. Now you get it. So take that shit off and go on about your white girl business.” My face burned red as I remained motionless, careful not to lock my knees, waiting for people to leave, but I was too proud for tears. I stood as tall as my 64 inches could stand, face stoic, slowly shaking my head. I could not believe the color of my skin dictated what clothes I could wear. Thankfully, the bell rang, clearing the main hall.
Needless to say, I never wore that coat again. And, as it turns out, Kim went on to model for Ebony magazine and grace the runways from L.A. to New York to Milan. Perhaps she was, in fact, better suited to wear fur to school. She did have that commanding presence, after all. Nevertheless, not one to walk away from a challenge, the following year I did manage to be the first white girl to perform in our high school’s Black Student Union talent show. So when my black friends started calling me Teena Marie, I managed to feel some sense of accomplishment and acceptance.
Flash forward to January 2014, my daughter’s freshman year of high school. She starts talking about a cute boy at another high school. I hear words like “athlete” and “popular” so I ask about his activities and his friends. She says he hangs out with lots of different people but names several jock-types I know far too much about. He’s one of those kids? Um, no. I know all about those boys . Not my baby girl. Immediately I tell her to not get her hopes up and she appropriately chastises me about judging him without even meeting him. Hmm. This girl was raised well. In 1988 my husband and I moved to Lawrence, Kansas and have never regretted our decision to raise our kids in a progressive, forward thinking community. In this moment, I am proud of her for correcting me. So I tell her to pull up his Twitter and Instagram and let me take a look at his posts.
I hesitate and it all comes rushing back. I’ve lived this moment before. Suddenly, I’m simultaneously 14 years old, thrust back into 1980, as well as a 14 year old girl’s mother in 2014. I can feel both halves of me as if each were whole. Total flashback. I look at her smiling face and realize she has no idea what is happening in my mind at this very moment.
“I know, mom. I know!” she says to me. “He’s really cute, right?” No other thought even crosses her mind, except this one. “And just because he’s an athlete doesn’t mean he’s an arrogant jock. He’s not. He’s smart and really nice.” Well, somebody knows her mother pretty darn well, doesn’t she? I smile back at her and confirm that, yes, indeed, he is very cute, consciously choosing to let her assume his good looks and athleticism caused my hesitation instead of the fact that she had unknowingly recreated an identical defining moment from my past, catapulting me into some crazy, parallel universe.
All good parents want their children to exceed them in every way, right? That’s the goal. In this moment, I know I will exceed my parents. I must. The fact that his color never occurred to her as being a potential issue proved I already had in some ways. Now I just needed to get past my preconceived notions about male athletes. If I couldn’t overcome my own stereotypical prejudice, then I could not exceed my parents in every way. For my daughter, I had to do better.
A few weeks later my son tells me he’s sure this boy is going to ask my daughter to the winter formal. He also tells me he approves of this kid, which never happens. He’s the most protective twin brother I’ve ever seen. I manage to stay out of the whole event. Then one day a car pulls up to our house followed by a knock on the door. My husband answers. “Mr. Emerson? Hello,” followed by a handshake and an introduction, and in walks a tall, well dressed, very attractive black teenager. He confidently walks up to me and introduces himself with a radiant smile that fills the room. I am now completely disarmed. He has quite the presence. Finally, he approaches my daughter and offers her all her favorite candy and a little box with a necklace inside and Formal? written on top. She happily agrees and he politely makes his exit, all smiles, practically floating out the door, leaving a void in his wake.
Charming. Truly charming.
The night of formal, his older brother brings him to our house and comes inside with him. He is tall, dark skinned, obviously very athletic, and every bit as polite as his younger brother. His presence is immense yet his demeanor is humble. My husband immediately recognizes him and they strike up a conversation about sports. I have no idea who he is but I am amazed at the possibility of not just one, but two respectful young men in my living room, both athletes, both filling the room with presence.
I grew up thinking that all the white, male athletes were products of overbearing, former jock dads, trying to live vicariously through their sons and all the black, male athletes were angry young men with something to prove, making their way with overworked single mothers and absent fathers. I believed all male athletes, regardless of color, were womanizing jerks. Unfortunately, after 30 years, my preconceived notions have proven true time and time again so, even though I married an exception to the rule, I still struggle with this stereotypical prejudice against male athletes that has been reinforced by so much reality. Yet here was the proof, right in my living room, that I was wrong to judge based on nothing more than gender and association.
After corsages and pictures the boys settle in for brief conversation. I want to know more about this atypical family. Who are these people? Turns out their parents are married, to each other, and have been together over 20 years. Their father is a medical professional and their mother is an attorney. There is yet another brother between these two and a younger sister. All three boys are athletes. This is one impressive family. Then the real shocker – we discover their mother went to high school with us in the same city. What?! We are stunned, dying to find out who she is. Upon hearing her maiden name my jaw drops, my head nearly spins off my neck, and I wonder how I didn’t already know.
Face palm. No such thing as a coincidence.
Tall. Black. Charmingly polite. Commanding presence. I’ll give you two guesses as to who she is and the first one doesn’t count.
You see, sometimes God taps you on the shoulder, politely reminding you that only He should judge. And other times, He clobbers you right smack in the forehead. Looking beyond heritage and race is only the first step. Looking beyond stereotype is the next. All that framed scripture on my walls doesn’t mean diddly-squat if I don’t apply the principles myself, on every level. As soon as I knew Kim was their mom, I knew any assumptions I made about them were wrong.
Eddie thought Kim could wear fur to high school because she was black. But it was because of who she was inside – her spirit, her confidence, her presence. Kim being Kim is why she could pull off that rabbit fur coat. It had nothing to do with her being black. I thought arrogant jocks were jerks because they were athletes, but it turns out those guys are just jerks who also happen to be athletes. Being a male athlete doesn’t automatically make a guy a jerk. Making assumptions based on stereotype is no better than basing assumptions on race. A person’s spirit, as demonstrated by his actions, is the only part of that person we should allow ourselves to see.
Last night, a month after formal, and a week after our kids have officially declared they are dating, Kim and her family came over for dinner and we got to meet her wonderful husband and other two children. At one point in this delightful evening my husband and I enjoyed watching their middle son clear his place and resist our instruction to just leave his dirty plate on the counter. Like, he seriously was so well mannered he looked a little lost not scraping his plate into the trash and rinsing his dish. He is also a male athlete. Of course he is, right? Of course. This non-athlete, white girl was learning one beautiful life lesson, I tell ya. Kim’s husband told us about how when he met her it was love at first sight for him. He knew exactly what I meant when I described her presence. Now I know where her boys got it. She shared the simplified version but there wasn’t enough time to hear the detailed story of why Kim ended up in Lawrence, Kansas. Although, I’m pretty sure I already know one obvious reason. And, if we’re lucky, we’ll have time to hear all the rest.