There are parts of this story I can’t tell. I have questions, here in my brown skin. I wonder what it’s like to adopt a child or marry a person who doesn’t look like you. I wonder what it’s like to hear these conversations when your skin isn’t the same as mine. And, while we probably won’t cover all the questions I (and you, too?) ask, I’ve asked a few people to share a bit from their own experiences. Today, I welcome Jennifer…
“Good morning, friend,” Deidra’s email began. “Quick question to consider: I’m wondering if you’d consider writing a guest post for my blog series?”
Did she mean, for that series? The one she’d titled “31 Days in My Brown Skin?”
I stared wide-eyed at my fingers frozen on the keyboard – my very peachy, Caucasian fingers. The cursor blinked.
Maybe the email was a mistake. Maybe Deidra meant for her email to be delivered to someone else — someone more informed, someone more experienced, someone more … brown.
But no. She meant it for me.
“Think about it,” she wrote. “Pray about it.”
And I did. This white woman living here in 99.9 percent Whitey-Whiteville, Iowa, thought about it. Oh yeah. I thought about it a long, loooong time. And I prayed. I’m not altogether certain right now, but I think the prayer went something like this: “Dear God, Can you come up with a convenient excuse for me to decline?”
And I thought about the past, all right. I thought about how, when I was a child, I only and always pulled the apricot crayon from the cardboard box when I needed to color a face. I would lightly brush that crayon against the page, face after face after face, page after page, to make everyone in the coloring book look like everyone in my Barbie case, everyone in my neighborhood, everyone in my little white world in northwest Iowa.
I thought about how the brown crayon was reserved for tree trunks. And the black one was saved for the color of a night sky. Or for patent leather.
I remembered how, when I was allowed to wear pantyhose at age 13, it never occurred to me that “nude” would be any other color than a shade similar to my own whitish-peachish legs.
And, I remembered how my limited exposure to people of color came through the Zenith console TV on the floor in my living room. Hunched over a bowl of dry AlphaBits, I would watch Gordon on Sesame Street. Or the Cosby’s. Or the Harlem Globetrotters. That was a rural Iowa white girl’s brush with diversity.
So, that’s why I sat at the keys a good long while before I typed a response to Deidra, the friend who was brave enough to “go there.” Would I be that brave, too?
I did tell her that I thought her idea was a great one. “I am cheering for you, and think it’s so important.” Wouldn’t that be enough? To cheer on a good friend from the sidelines? To raise my little white fist to the sky, in agreement?
And then this came out: “I have to admit: I’m afraid of saying something stupid. Which is just the thing, isn’t it?”
Indeed, that is “just the thing.”
We don’t talk about it. We brush it under out pretty little rugs. Because we don’t know what to say. As a white person, I quietly fluster over saying the wrong thing. I don’t want to offend or say something dumb or look like I secretly harbor some racist view. Which I don’t. But will my darker-skinned friends really see my heart, this heart that loves color?
I remember, just now, one angst-filled night in the campus newspaper’s newsroom 20 years ago. I was the editor-in-chief of the Iowa State Daily. That night, five of us editors – all white – gathered around a computer screen, wondering how to describe people with darker skin in a headline. Should we say African-American? Blacks? People of color?
We agreed that African-American was the best choice.
As it turned out, it was the very worst choice. The story was about people living in Africa. People who live in Africa are not called African-Americans. Just saying.
The phone in my editor’s office rang and rang and rang the next day.
Maybe that’s why I’m a little scared to write in this place today. Maybe I’m a bit afraid of another bone-headed move. But maybe that’s okay, too. Maybe it’s better to write a bit unsure. Maybe the best thing we can do is to be willing to be bone-headed, and then to offer each other a little bit of grace, and a little bit of space, so we can show our true colors, instead of hiding all paranoid-like in Whitey-Whiteville with our apricot crayons in our fists.
I don’t know much about a lot of things. But I do know this. If God went to the trouble of thinking up all these colors, it seems we ought to take a good long look at each other. And then, we ought to reach out our white or peach or brown or black hand to hold the one right next to us.
I’ve got a mind to go out and buy a box of 64 crayolas today, and then draw a whole rainbow of faces around a big table, right here. And I’m picturing it all now … that Great Day, when – at last – every tribe and tongue and nation shall bow at the feet of one very inventive Creator who came up with ROY.G.BIV … and all the stunning shades in between.
Until that day, I shall take one big breath, coax out my courage, then put these peachy, Caucasian fingers to the keyboard. Not because I’ve got any answers. But because I’d rather be color-loving than color-blind.
(And I’d rather talk about it, than hide.)
Jennifer serves as an adjunct journalism professor at Dordt College, a small Christian college in Iowa. She tells stories at her blog, www.JenniferDukesLee.com, and www.TheHighCalling.org, where she serves as a contributing editor. Soon, her words will make their way into her debut nonfiction Christian book (Tyndale).
She loves to tell the story; t’will be her theme in glory! Her favorite stories are the ones that she uncovers day-to-day in the grime and glory of the Lee family’s century-old farm. Her husband, Scott, and two daughters are proof that God gives ridiculously good gifts.
Jennifer will be a keynote speaker at JumpingTandem: The Retreat.