In keeping with my recent racial awakening and my lack of experience with direct, overt or latent racism, one incident that happened roughly 12 years ago stood out in my mind.
I was in my early twenties and just out of college for a couple of years. I was working at my first ‘real’ job, one that was salaried and included benefits, after a series of temping jobs. My mentor who helped me get my foot in the door, she was a close family friend at the time. Her life story was compelling. She was married to an African-American preacher, had two children, when I knew her, one child was in college and another was in high school.
She had been divorced from her husband for quite some time when I met her. Her ex-husband was abusive to her and after he struck her in front of her children, she took them and left with almost nothing to her name. She went back to school, got vocational training in various IT disciplines, made herself more marketable and was able to pull herself back up. When she was a mentor to me, she was the Vice President of a whole division of a very large company earning a six-figure income plus bonuses. She lived in a really nice condo with her daughter (her son was away at college) in a really nice part of town. And by nice, I mean White. It was a beach community in a lovely neighborhood.
Her children are biracial, her son got into UC Berkeley and her daughter was doing well in high school, expecting to follow the same path as her older brother. She had college funds set up for both children, they were set in that regard. When I asked her about how she felt about being a Canadian in America and raising Black children in America, she said she just raised them to be who they are meant to be regardless of color. She had no real clue how it was to be Black in America except that it’s not nice, but she wanted them to be proud of their heritage(s). Like all mothers, she wanted them to be happy and productive, however that takes shape. She had a close bond with both her children.
She was a pretty easygoing mother, she expected good grades, she demanded that her kids stay out of trouble with the police and to not get pregnant or get anyone pregnant but aside from those, she was laid back in her approach to parenting. She let her kids and their interest develop organically and was encouraging and supportive in all their endeavors. She was out and about with her children a lot in the neighborhood in which she lived, so everyone knew these two black kids belonged to a white mother, that action was deliberate on her part.
Then her daughter got pregnant in her junior year in high school, with a gangbanger from Compton. She was floored. She had no idea how someone from Compton could run into someone from Marina Del Rey (where they lived), find a place to have sex and get pregnant (her daughter never brought this boy home). She couldn’t believe it. She discussed all the options with her daughter, including abortion, they actually made an appointment and went to the abortion clinic but her daughter left sobbing and couldn’t go through with it. She wasn’t giving her baby up for adoption nor was she going to give it to the baby-daddy’s mother to raise, so it means she (or more like my friend) was going to raise this baby. Instead of looking forward to some leisure time after her daughter graduates from high school, she’s going to be looking after her little granddaughter.
She accepted that she was going to a premature grandmother but she felt sad for her daughter. She confided in me during this time that her daughter had become ‘one of them’, a trashy unwed teen mother having children with shady characters and her life though not ruined has been put on hold to care for a new baby, the only distinction is that her daughter won’t be on welfare or any type of public assistance. She told me “my daughter has no idea how far this has set her back, she’s got not one clue”. Her daughter growing up in an affluent white household was spoiled. I met her. She got her car at 16 (that’s how she found her boyfriend), she had pocket money all the time, she had a cell phone at a time where that’s still a privilege even for middle class children, she had nice clothes and nice things and she was proud of it. Her mother said she was an easy target for the wrong type of guys, and by that, she meant unsuitable black men. She was a young, attractive black girl coming from a well-to-do family. Our discussions were honest and frank, even if it was tinged with racism or elitism. She freely admitted it but she was too upset and too distraught to sugarcoat her feelings. She moved far away from the ghetto and it still found her daughter, like some kind of sick and twisted destiny.
By this point, she thought she had ‘purged’ all the ‘racial stuff’ from her system after her divorce from her cheating and abusive husband. She thought she had worked out those demons and was even back on friendly speaking terms with him, they attended their children’s events together was able to share a laugh. He has had a rough time since he lost his position as a preacher and he was in prison for some type of financial fraud crime. But she always allowed the children to maintain a relationship with him. But when her daughter got pregnant and when the baby-daddy is of questionable character, a new rage bubbled up from her. She was mostly sad for her daughter, she has become a statistic, her college and career ambitions truncated in order to meet the financial demands of caring for a child. It was like her life was over before it began. Mostly, her carefree days are over and she grieved the loss for her daughter. Her daughter, like all teenagers, thought everything was going to be just fine.
So the baby was born, I met her soon after she was born. She was born prematurely as her daughter was very small in stature and had a troubled pregnancy. Her granddaughter was born with many serious health issues and had to remain in Los Angeles Children’s Hospital for months. It was a traumatic time for them. She bonded with her little granddaughter immediately. She was a doting grandma. The little girl dulled the pain she felt for her daughter. She had no problem resuming child care duties that she thought she left behind long ago.
Where I figure into this story is for the little girl’s first birthday, which I was invited to attend. I was also asked to help out with her daughter for the birthday party. She only invited a few of her white friends because she was embarrassed about the baby-daddy’s family. She only invited her closest and most discreet friends so that no one at her work would find out what kind of ‘in-laws’ she had.
By this time, like so many hormone filled teenage relationships, her daughter and her baby-daddy were barely on speaking terms, they basically ignored each other during the party. What seemed so cool and attractive about him is now a liability. He could not provide or step up and be a father but she had to drop everything and be a mother at 17 years old. Her daughter told me that one time her ex-boyfriend showed up at her mother’s condo with personalized baby booties for their daughter, which was a sweet gesture but she really needed diapers and formula, not little booties that she’ll grow out of in two weeks. You get the picture.
So on the day of the party, I arrived bright and early at her condo ready to help out. The birthday party was to be a BBQ picnic party at a local park in Marina Del Rey near my friend’s home, so the baby-daddy and his family would join us there. I was tasked with going with her daughter and granddaughter to go pick up the birthday cake at a supermarket and my friend was going to the park early to set up the BBQ and put up some streamers and banners. I remembered it was a beautiful warm summer day by the ocean, I was actually looking forward to it. But as we drove to pick up the cake, we were going out of the ‘nice neighborhood’ to the not-so-nice (black) part of town. As the streets got rougher, the more worried I got. Here we are, two young women with a baby in these parts of town, my first thought was ‘Are there no cakes available where you live?! Why do we have to come here to buy a birthday cake?’ but I bit my tongue. As we got out of the car to go inside the supermarket to pick up the cake, I asked her if she locked her car. She looked at me funny said ‘yes’ and realized I was her mom’s ‘white’ friend. And then I said, ‘let’s hurry it up, we are here alone with a little baby.’ She ignored me. When on our way back to the park, her baby was wailing in her carseat, she wanted to pull over to calm her down, I told her to just drive and the ride will calm her down. She didn’t listen to me, she pulled over, comforted her baby in the middle of the rough streets and then drove on.
When we got back to the nice part of town and to the park, I pulled my friend aside and asked her if she was aware where her daughter ordered the cake and why was it all the way across ‘that part’ of town? Did the dad order it, and she said, ‘No, I gave her the money to order it’ and proceeded to roll her eyes and she apologized to me. I don’t know if she did that to antagonize her mother or what.
So the party started, the baby-daddy’s family and guests arrived. That was when the real racial ‘tension’ started. The white party and the black party said awkward ‘hellos’ and greetings and each retreated to different corner in the park until the food was ready. We didn’t even socialize with one another. On my part, I didn’t even know what to say. Even our attire was totally different. We (the white people) showed up in light summer dresses and outfits, they were wearing trousers halfway down their bottom being held up by ‘belts’. Their shirts were baggy and oversized and many wore gold flashy jewelry. It was as if they walked out of a movie stereotyping inner city fashions. I was afraid to ask any of the perfunctory questions I was brought up to ask while socializing with company. I couldn’t ask ‘where do you work?’ because I was told that he didn’t. I can’t ask ‘where are you from?’ or ‘what are your interests?’ because the question itself provokes bad feelings and we already knew that they were gang affiliated somehow. I couldn’t even chit chat about topics and subjects that we may have in common like one would normally do when socializing with company that is of the same race and background as yourself. I realized then just how naive and sheltered my life had been, yet I thought I was a well rounded and worldly person, I couldn’t even socialize with someone who lived in the city I lived in at the time.
The awkwardness really started to crank up when it was time to sing the birthday song and cut the birthday cake where both sides now have to come together and wish the little celebrant a happy birthday. The other grandmother was talking to my friend about something which I don’t recall, but they were disagreeing and my friend didn’t want to have an argument in the middle of the party told her that they will discuss it later and excused herself before it got loud and turned into a full blown argument. The other grandmother took it as a slight that she just ‘walked off’ and the bad feelings ensued. All in all, it was an awkward experience and we were all glad when it was over and done with.
Prior to this, many people (not me) have suggested to my friend that she could just pay off the baby-daddy so that he’d disappear from their lives forever, that way he’d be out of her hair and he’s not even in a relationship with her daughter anymore. But she said she couldn’t do that, use her economic advantage to bully someone out of abandoning his daughter. Regardless how she felt about him, her granddaughter deserved a dad, just like her kids deserved a dad. But after this birthday party and as she was envisioning possible future birthday parties and Christmases to come, it was more than she could bear, she was seriously considering making him an offer he couldn’t refuse. In the end she didn’t but told her daughter that from now on, there will be different celebrations and it was the first and last time where both families did anything jointly together. And that was final.
If I could talk to my younger self, I’d tell her to be more open minded and accepting. Though what I did wasn’t technically ‘racist’ in any way, I just avoided them, I was full of judgment because he and his family were different to me, different to us. I couldn’t empathize and and consider why he turned out that way. I didn’t try to befriend them and to try and understand them and see where they are coming from. I didn’t even care. I just sat in my comfortable corner and judged away in my mind. I didn’t say anything out loud but they could feel the judgment a mile away. They could probably feel it a they were driving through the city limits.
This form of ‘racism’ is the latent, unseen, institutionalized racism that is at the forefront of the fight right now. This them versus us mentality, the deliberate separation and segregation of white people or people who have adopted ‘white’ values versus the ones that don’t. However, if you told me then what I did was ‘racist’, I would have flew into a rage. I did nothing racist, I didn’t call them names, I didn’t give them dirty looks, I didn’t sneer at them, I only ignored them because I can’t be bothered to socialize with them because I made a judgement that they are different from me so therefore we must have nothing in common. I don’t know what to say to them. That’s not racism. That’s my choice, to which I have a right to. And I do, but it’s this type of ‘stereotyped’, segregationist thinking that gives rise to institutionalized racism where our ‘system’ is set up for the convenience, comfort and benefit of white people or people who subscribe to white values.
I had long forgotten about this incident. I filed it under ‘an unfortunate child’s party I attended and never to be repeated again’ and rarely thought about it again. However, the few times that I recall this incident because I am in the area where the party was or someone I know is moving to that area any other random event that made me recall this party, I remember this little girl’s first birthday party that I attended and how I, as an individual should have behaved better, I should have behaved differently. I should have reached out to others just as a friend, one person to another to get to learn about each other. And I didn’t do that and I very much regret it.