What Would Pandora Do?

So often during this election cycle I’ve thought about Pandora and her box. A lot of hatred has been voiced and, worse, legitimized by a terrifying number of Trump supporters. No matter who wins at this point, the box has been opened wide: you can’t just put the hate back in, close the lid, and pretend that the past year didn’t happen.

With Pandora on my mind, I thought I should check the “facts” of the story. I had forgotten that it was Pandora’s own curiosity that made her open the locked box sent along with her by Zeus when he gifted her, the first woman, to Epimetheus, brother of the better-known – at least in our day – Prometheus. I’m not sure that curiosity has anything to do with this modern-day version of the story, but boy oh boy, the aftermath is a perfect match. When Pandora lifted the proverbial lid, out flew a lot of bad stuff, not least of which were sickness, envy, and, you guessed it, hate. Seeing what she had done, Pandora, unlike Mr. Trump I might add, quickly closed the lid, but never mind, it was too late anyway.

The most disturbing part of the story, though, at least in today’s context is that Hope then became trapped in the box, never to see the light of day. Why it was in there in the first place scholars have an array of theories, but in the presence of the rest of evils, its absence is, to say the least, disconcerting.

Immigrants, Muslims, racial minorities, LGBT, foreigners, non-Christians, women…It’s time to rewrite the ancient myth: only Hope is going to get us – and more importantly our children – past this one, and I’m just not sure if that’s going to be enough.

Mistaken Identities

My husband and I often find ourselves to be the only people of color at parties and other situations, which is fine. We’re used to it. And we wouldn’t trade the friends who invited us there for the world. But once again, last week, someone just had to tell me that I looked like Michelle Obama. It reminded me of a piece I posted a few years ago.

A very funny thing happened as I walked down the road with my daughter and fluffy white dog in the Martha’s Vineyard town of West Tisbury, just about a half mile from where the First Family was vacationing. From a passing car, we heard someone shout, “Look! It’s the Obamas!”

Now granted, I was wearing a skirt from Talbots, my daughter’s age falls midway between Sasha’s and Malia’s, and our dog is very cute, but other than that and our brown skin, we look nothing like the First Lady and her daughters.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m flattered by the comparison. However, I continue to be baffled by this strange compulsion, this burning desire to classify African-Americans floating solo amongst the majority – and I do believe this condition is exclusive to black people – as famous, meaning athletes, entertainers, and I guess now the President and his family.

Living in Switzerland in the mid-1980’s, a place certainly better known for its xenophobia rather than its diversity, I often heard people whispering to each other that I was the singer Sade. I met a woman the other night, who looked nothing like me, but had had similar experiences – in Boston. My guess is there were a lot of us. Let’s see…hair pulled back, sunglasses…yes, of course, it must be Sade! Does this even make sense?

When I tell people that I work in television, they respond that they’ve seen me on some show.   No – guess what! – I’m a producer, and as far as I know, no actress will ever hesitate to identify her calling up front.

During my time at ABC, if I was specific and said that I worked in sports, more often than not someone will say, “You must have been quite an athlete yourself!” No, actually, I am the most uncoordinated woman I’ve ever met.   “Oh come on,” they’ll tell me, “that’s not possible.” OK fine: Does it count that I spent an evening signing autographs in a Seoul nightclub during the 1988 Olympics? The Koreans insisted that I was Florence Griffith-Joyner, may she rest in peace. All they had to do was look at the fingers holding the pen to know that I was an imposter. Ah, but I didn’t have the heart to let them down.

One of my favorite stories comes from a friend who had been amazed at the friendliness of the neighbors and staff in ritzy Upper East Side apartment building that she and her husband, both highly successful corporate types and rather tall, had moved into with their children. After a few weeks of big smiles and cheerful hellos, a grinning doorman blurted out, “We are all so excited to have a player from the New York Knicks living here!” They’re still trying to figure out which one.

What does all this mean for our children? When I started this blog, I wrote about “The Deeper Meaning of ‘Inexperienced’” in the context of all the rhetoric surrounding the 2008 elections. I said that several parents of color had told me about how shocked white parents – and sometimes teachers – can be at the intelligence of a brown-skinned child. More often than not, though, they will readily gush with praise for his or her athletic abilities or performing talents, counting on them to make game-winning baskets and add a little desperately needed rhythm to school musicals. Meanwhile, my daughter may be a real ham, but I have yet to see any signs of musical genius and it appears that she may well be following in her mother’s clumsy footsteps. Her biggest talent is math.

My African-American contemporaries, products of the ‘60s,‘70s and even ‘80s who have succeeded in spite of the ever-present stereotypes, will joke about us all being athletes, entertainers and, of course, so articulate. When we look at our kids, though, it just isn’t funny anymore.

Time to Move?

In 1968, I was ten years old, and George Wallace was running for president. My parents told me that if Wallace won, we would have to leave the country. For reasons I have long since forgotten, Switzerland looked pretty good to me, and I began to pray daily for Wallace’s victory. Imagine my disappointment when Richard Nixon prevailed.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized the true implications of a hypothetical Wallace presidency. For a middle-class African American family like ours, and indeed all people who were riding the Civil Rights Movement wave of the sixties, the results could have been infinitely more devastating than my personal loss of life in a chalet. Surely, Wallace’s campaign was destined for failure from the get-go, but I still find the fact that almost ten million people voted for him chilling.

Memories of my near escape to the Alps occur to me more and more these days as I watch the antics of Donald Trump and, worse, his supporters. The anti-Obama antics of Marco Rubio are pretty scary too. The hate is looking a lot like what surrounded the late Governor Wallace – not to mention a few other special characters. All this “take back America” rhetoric is giving me the creeps.  A few months ago, I followed a tractor-trailer on I-95 that had “Taking America back – one truck at a time” emblazoned across its back.  Seriously?

There is an all-too-familiar undercurrent in this country today that I can touch, a bitterness that I can taste. We all recognize that racism may never go completely away, but nor should we want to see ourselves as a nation go backwards. The forecast, however, is becoming cloudier by the day. It’s worse when I think of my daughter, who is yet to become an adult in a far too hostile world. No matter who wins the Republican nomination, and the general election in November, the collateral damage has been done.  The beast has raised its ugly head, and he is roaring.

Quite coincidentally, I ended up living in Switzerland for a spell as an adult. Swiss society is by no means perfect – consider its prevalent xenophobia – but those three years gave me many of my fondest memories. Would I ever think about going back? Check with me in August, right after the Republican convention.

Magic Kingdom Dreams (originally posted September 2013)

A little over fifty years ago, tens of thousands gathered in Washington, DC for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  And I was…at Disneyland. It was a few weeks after my sixth birthday, and my mother had taken me on an overnight adventure, just the two of us making the 45-minute trip on the Santa Ana Freeway to Anaheim, where we would spend the day with Mickey and the night at the Candy Cane Inn just across the street. Tom Sawyer Island and the Mark Twain Riverboat aside, that’s pretty much as far as one could be from the Deep South without actually leaving the confines of the United States. Sure, I bet some people gave us funny looks and stepped in front of us, just like they still do today, but there were no “Whites Only” signs, thank goodness. The worst thing that happened to me was that witch who pops out at you on the Snow White ride, offering the poisoned apple. To this day, I’ve steered clear of her.

Photographs show me at the top of Main Street USA in a pretty dress with puffy petticoat, my hair braided and crossed in a “crown” over my head, Swiss maiden style. It wasn’t until years later that my mother, now deceased, explained to me that on occasions like these, she made sure that she and I both wore fancy clothes so that the white people would know that we were as good as they were, if not better. At 90, my father is still the same way.

I remember that day not so much because of Tinkerbell and company, but rather the fact that my father drove out in the afternoon ostensibly to surprise me for dinner. In those days, the lines at Disneyland were nothing like they are today: after four hours or so, we had done all there was for a six-year-old to do. My mother and I headed over to the Candy Cane and checked in.  A short time later, there was a knock at the door, and I remember my own delight at seeing my father.  He told me that because he missed me so much, he had come to have dinner with us; but first, he and my mother wanted to watch something on TV.

Thinking back, what I see now, very clearly in my mind’s eye, are my parents sitting together at the edge of one of the two queen beds in the room as they watched Martin Luther King, Jr. describe his dream to them and to millions of Americans. I don’t know if there were tears in their eyes, but I imagine so.   Anyone who has heard those words knows how inspiring and powerful they had to have been that Wednesday afternoon, when they were spoken for the very first time. I get all choked up just thinking about it.

With the exception of the footage that aired as we celebrated the anniversary of the march, and perhaps in documentaries, the black and white images that I watched with my parents over the course of that extraordinary event are not as clear. What I recall more is the sensation: of motion, of moving forward, quite literally to the Promised Land. Perhaps it was the word “march” that made such an impression on my young mind, but seeing all of those people, black and white, chanting, singing and carrying signs, I felt distinctly that we as a country had to be going somewhere, and it would to be better than where we were before. Hope was in the air.

It bothers me that so many kids have become complacent, particularly with racial discrimination and injustice that still exist. But why shouldn’t they? The momentum has all but dissipated and the march written off as something that happened a long, long time ago. Those who are lucky enough to have a wealth of opportunities feel that they are already where they should be; and many who continue to struggle at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder believe that’s where they’ll stay. Hope is in short supply, and the magic kingdom that Reverend King spoke of – you know, the place where people are judged not by the color of their skin, but “by the content of their character” – remains just that: the stuff of dreams.

The activities commemorating last year’s anniversary of the march jogged the memories of many of my generation and older, but, I’m afraid, they were largely dismissed by our children. While I would not wish those days upon them, it’s a shame that they didn’t have the opportunity to experience the events of the Civil Rights Movement as they unfolded. They should have watched them with their parents. They would have felt the motion.

On “The Help” (Originally posted August 2011)

So the “The Help” opened yesterday at a theater near you. It should do well, particularly among the “Chick Flick” set, and like many, I’m looking forward to seeing it.

I enjoyed the book for a couple of reasons: First of all, it made fun of the Junior League, a great organization of women to which I have devoted a great many volunteer hours and nearly half my life, but still appreciate its very special culture, north or south, east or west. You have to have a sense of humor to make it as long as I have.

Secondly, I’m a sucker for a story about seemingly unlikely friendships and people who have the courage to form them.  Remember that show, “I’ll Fly Away?” I cried at every episode.

But here’s the thing about The Help: Place the story in the south of the early 1960s and everyone thinks that racial segregation and discrimination happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. “Phew, glad we’re done with that” or “Thank goodness I didn’t live in the south back then.” It might as well have taken place in outer space.

Cut to New York’s Upper East Side in 2005, just steps from Park Avenue and, quite coincidentally, at the headquarters of the Junior League. There’s a party going on: Someone’s turning eight. Upon arriving to fetch her own son, my friend was surprised to find women – babysitters of varying ethnic backgrounds – gathered together in a separate room, on a different floor from the festivities. Before heading upstairs, she stopped to greet those whom she knew, and had to ask why they were not with their various charges. She learned that the mother had requested that all of the babysitters wait in this holding room until the party was over. Puzzled, my friend went on to the room where the children were gleefully partying and asked the birthday boy’s mom what the deal was with the nannies being excluded. The mother scoffed, “Well, you don’t want the help to be where you socialize, do you?”

There it is: “The Help.” In New York City, 2005, and I’m pretty sure that’s no isolated incident.  Go back a bit and read my earlier entries on the Nanny Syndrome and invisibility. That’s just a tip of the proverbial iceberg.

No, we are not done with that. Women of color still make up the majority of the domestic workforce throughout the country. They’re expected to. I could be wrong, but their relationships with their employers don’t seem terribly different from those between the maids and the Junior League gals in “The Help.” Look around: You’ll see what I’m talking about. For example, practically every recommendation, or request for a recommendation, that I’ve seen for a babysitter or cleaning lady carries the word honest. Seriously, would you suggest someone who wasn’t?

Seven years ago, I shared and elevator to my apartment with an older woman, who turned out was visiting my neighbor in a very swank, minimal minority building. We chatted about the weather on the way up, but when we parted company on my floor, she said, “Oh, you work for the woman next door?” “No,” I told her, “I am the woman next door.”

The official slogan for “The Help” is “Change begins with a whisper.” Clearly, we haven’t been whispering enough. There’s still time, though.

 

 

 

 

Just Last Week…

It seems to be big news, in the midst of even bigger news – after all, the story broke in People Magazine: the President, while wearing a tuxedo, has been mistaken for a waiter and valet parking attendant. Once again, we’d all like to think that such a thing wouldn’t happen today, at least not anymore.  And after all, the man is The President, which is great; but meanwhile, back in the lives of other men of color…

Last week, at the annual Christmas party for the parents and faculty of our daughter’s independent school, my husband – who, by the way, was not wearing a tuxedo, but rather cords, a nice shirt, and a sports coat – was next in line at the bar to get a glass of wine. One mother stepped in front of him, without skipping a beat in her conversation with another mother, and in one fluid movement handed my husband her empty glass and placed an order for a full one.

I saw the whole thing. My husband informed the woman that he was not a waiter and granted, she appeared mortified.  Hell, maybe she’ll learn from that moment. But really, what are the odds?

 

The Nanny Syndrome (originally posted November, 2008)

So focused on this election business was I that I almost missed a great opportunity to introduce what will no doubt be a recurring Diversity Mom theme – something I call “The Nanny Syndrome.” It’s a Halloween tale of sorts, at least it happened at a Halloween children’s dinner organized by a women’s group – many of them friends, practically all of them white – of which I am normally happy and proud to be a part. I was not the only brown-skinned person in the room. Several mothers brought along their nannies and, of course, there was the wait staff, but my daughter was clearly the only child of color. Over the course of the evening, an older woman I did not know, but who sat our table, generously divided her attentions between the little boy who had come with her and my daughter, who looked quite glamorous dressed as a movie star.   Dinner was lively and fun, as were the rounds of bingo afterwards. Towards the end of the evening, however, the woman leaned over and just had to ask me, “So, you are this beautiful little girl’s babysitter?”

Well, there I was dressed the part in my cashmere sweater, fancy French silk scarf and Italian designer loafers, sitting next to a little girl who looked very much like me, and after close to 90 minutes, it had not even dawned on the woman that I was the child’s mother. Why is it that for some, in this day and age, a woman of color in certain environments with a child – any child – still can only have one job?   Nanny, babysitter, caregiver: call it what you like, but mother seems to be out of the question. This just makes me crazy.

I remember overhearing a friend of my mother’s talk about how someone asked whose maid she was while grocery shopping near her new Beverly Hills home. That was forty-something years ago, when barriers were just starting to fall and middle class blacks were beginning to find their way into affluent neighborhoods, independent schools and big business.   No one will argue that in many ways, times have changed; what concerns me is how in other ways, they have not. Just look around some of the private schools today, not to mention a good number of corporate boardrooms. If progress is this stagnant for those who have supposedly “made it”, then what about those still struggling to get there? And forty years from now, will people carry the same faulty preconceptions about my daughter? Now, that’s scary!

The Legend of the Scary Black Man

About a year ago, my husband urged me to write about a Scary-Black-Man moment that he had had outside our daughter’s school. These days, with recent events, the legend appears to be enjoying broader circulation, if not deeper discussion.

SO, on an especially freezing winter’s day, my husband – a brown-skinned Latino – had been kind enough to offer to pick me up from a morning Parents Association meeting, which of course ran long. Fortunately, there was a space just in front of the school, where he thought he would sit in the car, motor running and heat blasting, until I arrived.   The sign said, “No Parking School Days, 7:00 AM to 4:00 PM,” but never mind: He was ready and willing to move if need be. A few minutes later, he looked up from whiling away the time on his iPhone to see the school’s head of security, a former NY police officer, approaching the car with his I’ll-get-this-guy walk, a white woman following close behind him. Recognizing my husband by the time he got to the car, he said, noticeably relieved, “Oh, it’s you,” and asked him to move so that the woman, a teacher, could park her own vehicle. Now granted, I don’t know what transpired to bring security out running into the cold, but I’m certain about one thing: It wouldn’t have happened if the man in the car had been white. I doubt if it even occurred to her that my husband could possibly have been a parent.

I’ve never taken a class in psychology, but I think it’s fairly safe to say that such behavior is Pavlovian, simple stimulus-and-response: See brown-skinned man, think trouble. Look at the madness whirling around the President. I once read about a study that found that white mothers, instinctively gripping the hands of their young children a little tighter, and maybe even crossing the street at the approach of a man of color, were conditioning their children to do the same, to feel fear and respond accordingly. And where do you think these mothers got it? This has been going on for generations.

Why do these things continue to happen? Look to the legend and Pavlov’s dogs. In increasingly diverse environments, such as the schools – and universities – that our children attend, it’s time to apply a little rational thinking, to look beyond legends.