"G____, did I ever tell you about the time I worked in the ghetto?"
I humored her as I listened, for the twentieth time about that time in the 1970s when she taught grade school "in the ghetto." We had an audience. The other guests. Sitting there, all gleaming, and "white". I didn't look at any of their faces, but I looked right in hers. Humoring her. Allowing her to feel the comfort she needed to feel. I suppose she felt she was being inclusive. Perhaps she felt the other conversations about music, and people, and life in general were foreign to me. That my silence was an indication of ignorance on the topics. Do Black folks have thoughts about music? About people? About life?
Strange departure as I have known her for years now. She helped me find the florist for my wedding a decade ago. I've prayed around her table. I have cried on her shoulder. But none of these brought a closeness or a familiarity to allay her discomfort. Not the knowledge of my upbringing. A military brat with family ties to the rural South. A college educated woman with a career in a professional external position at one of the largest universities in the state. One who classifies non fiction books about politics, sociology, leadership, and theology as "leisure" reading. None of this could erase the synonymity of "Black" and "ghetto." That I would somehow find her story interesting or relevant. And why direct the question at me? As I sat silently. Right in the middle of completely different conversation with no recognizable segue to "that time she taught in the ghetto."
I wanted to scream. "Black Americans are diverse. Black.Americans.are.diverse. BLACK.AMERICANS.ARE.DIVERSE. We are diverse."
But instead, I sat and listened, and humored...well, until she went into the part about a neighbor explaining why the kids "walked that way." She made exaggerate motions with her arms and wobbled her neck around a bit. At that point, I asked her to get up and demonstrate. She didn't.
Black people are lawyers, drug dealers, social workers, teachers, prostitutes, preachers, small business owners, politicians, military veterans, news anchors, real estate agents, entertainers, dead beat parents, athletes, dentists, engineers, secretaries, morticians, writers, hustlers...
Despite this diversity, Black experience and identity in the U.S. is limited to urban inner cities and poverty. Despite never having lived in a city, yet alone any place that would be regarded as a "ghetto,' I'm associated with it because of my skin. I know those who define themselves as "white" (and not their actual ethnicity) will view me in this way no matter how long they have known me or how they know me or what I accomplish.
There is no "point" to this post. Just relaying an observation I have tested many times in my adult life. There are some who are able to treat me as an individual. Sometimes I want to be treated as an individual. Other times I don't want to be treated that way. Sigh.