By Alexander Schuhr
“Maybe you want to play with him,” the woman says, leading her daughter toward a toddler sitting in the sand. The boy doesn’t need anybody to play with. He is completely absorbed with his task of shoveling sand into a bucket. Nevertheless, this woman seems terribly eager to see her girl join him in this endeavor. She proceeds to drag her away from my daughter.
For my daughter, the fact that everybody has a different color is as self-evident as mundane. Her stuffed dinosaur is green, her plush duck is yellow, and she has a pink teddy bear. Similarly, mommy is brown. (A more accurate description than “black.”) Daddy is orange. (Inaccurate, as far as I’m concerned, but so is “white.”) She describes herself as “beige like caramel,” sometimes clarifying “like Leela,” an Indian-American character in Sesame Street (Comparable complexion, though different ethnicity… but then again, why would she care about that?) In the protected world of our home, I have a comparably innocent approach to skin color. In the outside world, however, a different reality imposes itself.
In the two years of her life, my daughter underwent a complex transformation of racial identity, unbeknownst to her. For some time after her birth, her complexion remained very similar to mine, and her hair was straight. People considered her Caucasian. On more than one occasion, my wife was asked, with an insolent tone of disbelief, whether she was the mother. Then, there was an extended period of ambiguity. Eventually, her hair became curlier, her once-milky skin tone turned into the color of a café au lait: still with lots of milk, but just enough coffee to keep people guessing. Few would guess out loud, of course. People feel much too uncomfortable talking about race. I’ve seen them several times, the relieved expressions on faces, like when a bothersome puzzle is solved, when either my wife or I appeared next to the other parent, thus clarifying my daughter’s ethnicity.
Our daughter’s skin became only slightly darker. At some point, she must have crossed a threshold, though, and the “one-drop rule” went into effect. Now she was no longer “ambiguous” but “black.” Suddenly it would be an overwhelming majority of black people—occasionally other “people of color”—who would interact with her, call her cute, and tell me how beautiful she was.
Along with her apparent transformation to “blackness” came my worry that she may be subjected to the same vicious, sneaky force that I’ve seen too many times applied to my wife. Social scientists call them “new racism” or “racial microaggressions,” these subtle traces of racial bias in everyday situations. They are faint symptoms of a social disease, well known to virtually any minority group, yet often unacknowledged by the Caucasian majority. They are harder to spot than the hateful slogans of the white supremacist with the swastika tattoo, the degrading slurs of the hooded clansman, or even the thinly disguised attacks of the populist demagogue that are effortlessly decoded by his intended audience. No, new racism is subtler, less identifiable. It is conveyed by the flight attendant whose cheerful demeanor becomes cold and distant when serving an Asian passenger, by the group of giggling coeds that turns silent when the Hispanic classmate enters the lecture theater, or the motorist who, while waiting for the green light, feels compelled to lock the car when he spots the African-American pedestrian on the sidewalk. The ambiguity of these signals makes it difficult to identify their nature. Each isolated incident may be vague and open to alternative interpretations, but their aggregation makes all doubt vanish.
And now there is that woman, who pushes her daughter away from mine, toward the deeply absorbed toddler with the shovel. She gives me a nervous smile, which reveals uneasiness as well as defiance. I don’t smile back. While I feel offended by her action, I cannot be certain of its meaning. Part of the viciousness of subtle racism lies in its obscurity to the recipient, and sometimes even the perpetrator. Consequently, I find myself wondering whether I am too suspicious. Maybe it’s innocent. Maybe she knows the little boy and fears he is lonely or bored. Maybe she fears older kids (my daughter is not older than hers, but is unusually tall for her age). Maybe she fears me, the only dad on the playground. I try to find other explanations, but cannot ignore the one reason that seems to be an obvious possibility, and I dread the day this reason may appear equally possible to my little girl.
Yet, it is a bitter truth that she will become aware of racism in its subtle and not-so-subtle forms. And it is my duty to prepare her, so that she can identify the deficiency in the senders of such messages and never attribute it to herself. It is a duty I face with the utmost determination, but also with profound sadness. I cherish our protected world, where people are simply brown, orange, or beige like caramel.
Alexander Schuhr is an independent scholar and freelance writer. He has spent much of his adult life between the U.S., Europe, and sub-Saharan Africa. He and his wife have a two-year old daughter.