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.