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Winter/Spring 2019

White Privilege

 

by Vicki Austin

 

“Oh honey… your baby… he’s so… dark.” Her flinty words cut the air, lipstick bleeding into the cracks of an angular mouth.

Instinctively

I dodged

 the jagged characters

pouring from her papery lips.

Chose a jar of applesauce while keeping one hand protectively on my son’s soft leg wedged into the cart. Turned.

“Yes. He gets that from his dad.”

“Umm… mmm…” she responded in an upward, knowing voice, casting a sharp glance towards her companion, closing yellow, angled teeth tightly against the hovering crisp lines of accusation.

Two pairs of stabbing eyes narrowed. Advanced. “Well,” the gaping jaws widened and snapped.

I wrapped my arms around my tender child, squeezing him tightly as he squirmed.

That was the first time I realized that people thought my son was not white.

I was nineteen when I met my husband. His skin, darker than mine, caused me and my roommates to guess at his heritage, giggling stupidly over ice cream. His parents, like my own, were as white as the traffic lines painted along their winding Ohio roads: the daughter of a Methodist minister and the son of a mill worker.

Two years later when we moved to El Paso, voices peppered us at the open market.   “Un vestido para la mujer?” Tourists observed us for native behaviors. We enjoyed the conspiracy of our private joke. Even a few years later, in Cincinnati, when I returned from the applesauce excursion, we had a good laugh. How racist were they, we asked? It made a good story to bring out at dinner parties with our academic friends, judging other people’s prejudices.

Many years later, one summer at the shore, my grown son was unable to resist the persuasion of the charming lady who ran her fingers through his hair, and he succumbed to a head full of cornrows. I snapped photo after photo of his well-tanned, well-coiffed head, and saw something I hadn’t seen before framed by the honest viewfinder.

“Is your boyfriend black?” the questions came over Snapchat to my son’s girlfriend. “Dude’s gotta be mixed.”

“Don’t go to the drugstore at night alone,” I suggested. “Don’t stop at the gas station in that part of town.”

“Mom,” he’d insist, “everyone knows me.”

But how could I say the words to him, “Everyone knows you’re not black? Are you sure?”

I found myself fantasizing about walking by his side, holding a sign that read, “He’s my son, mine and his father’s.”

The resulting guilt was all-consuming.

I raise my arms to scrutinize my weak, aging, pale and uninteresting flesh. The perfidy of my generous laughter over other-people’s racism shames me. I am utterly, wholly, forever guilty, as I cocoon myself in colorless privilege, wrapped in a safe and comfortable silence.

 

[Check out Vicki Austin’s back porch advice]