Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Colorblind and Colorstruck

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“Do you ever pass for Black,” he asked.

Well, shit, up until this point I thought I was passing for white.

We were sitting for brunch in a Harlem bar/restaurant on Lenox Ave, one of those new faux-down-home places for a new multicolored, yuppified ‘hood. I had just switched from coffee to Guinness as the clock struck noon, the bartender a Black woman pulling out the sugars and the savoir faire of someone who knew which side their bread was buttered on. The setting had put me ill at ease, for it was cloying in its colorblind acceptability; the very question itself drove the nail home. It offended me. I’m not entirely sure my friend intended it to.

I told him of my students from Crown Heights who, without solicitation or prompting, glommed onto me as the closest thing they had to a teacher of color. “Your moms is Black, isn’t she?” Hell yes she is. I didn’t think much of it at the time, just as I didn’t think of being the only light-skinned person wandering around Lefferts Gardens when I lived there. They recognized their own and treated me with familiarity and deference, despite my not being the darkest member of the staff. That skin would belong to the Caribbean Black math teacher, who alienated his students from himself and his subject by making it explicitly clear that he did not come from the same stock as them; his French Creole accent punctuating every assertion.

What I was thinking, however, was the transplanted midwestern white woman who had glommed onto me in an Irish bar uptown as an ambassador of my neighborhood and my city, who confided in me her racial fears and misunderstandings, because in her eyes I was comfortably and approachably white. She recognized her own, too. I guess I shouldn’t complain that each is able to find a common element in those they talk to, but just as my compatriot at the Harlem bar – who had told me two years prior that he spoke to me because I was of the same blood as him; he wasn’t interested in hearing about my other halves – their ability to recognize a shared humanity was, in a sense, limited to their specific sense of humanity.

I don’t want to be the acceptable one to a group that finds itself talking about the untoward “element” in their adopted neighborhood. I don’t want to be the one used by a group to present a “respectable” front.

It came to a head during a bar-hopping shindig with a number of my longterm college friends of mixed heritage and some friends-of-friends who had come along for the ride. One such friend-of-a-friend, a Bostonian by the name of Dave – a ‘bro’ if ever there was one, as contrasted, I guess, to a ‘brother’ – had led our contingent to a beer bar on the Lower East Side, which we had bookended with a run in a dance club along the way. On our way back, as our boisterous crew meandered its way up Allen St, our calls to each other rang out down the block and then some. I declared that, this late in the night and we being as we are, we’d better civilize ourselves lest the bouncer of the club decide we’re more annoyingly drunk and troublesome than our money is worth.

Dave took umbrage: How could I tell these Black folk to civilize themselves? Being who he was and how he identified himself, he could not say such a thing; he intoned that I was perhaps crossing a line.

Well, shit, that was only something my mother had told me many a time.

He was corrected by our mutual friend that, no, I was cool people. There was no division. He was a tad confused. To his eyes, I must have had a privilege, earned by some arcane, urbane means. To my eyes, he was highlighting his internalized divisions.

Each is a lie, of course: Anybody who says they are colorblind is really saying “I assume everybody has the same rights and privileges as me,” which is plainly not the case. Down that path lies bitterness, fear and resentment on all sides of the equation. But damn if we ain’t colorstruck as a motherfucker. How am I to respond when a white person asks me what a good place is to bring her one Black friend so that the Black person feels comfortable with their “own people,” knowing full well she asked me because I passed (for white? for Black?) I was offended then, too, and I know she didn’t mean to offend me.

I have, tritely, answered this question for myself by saying I’m a New Yorker first, leavened by my belief that our shared ideology binds us where our shared tribal monocultures don’t. I have had too many arguments in Irish bars with Dubliners who deny a common heritage to call myself Irish. It’s hard enough convincing the Haudenosaunee that I’m Kituwah. (What do you call 99 Cherokees? A full-blood.) Now my Blackness is being questioned. Such questions, however, wouldn’t even have come to pass without such a venue to do so: Here is where those questions are, if not answered, then mulled over. But I am not colorblind, nor, clearly, indeed is anybody else around me. The American experiment continues apace.

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2 Responses to “Colorblind and Colorstruck”

  1. The Midtown Hustle « Big Smoke
    on Feb 5th, 2015
    @ 7:44 pm

    […] colorstruck and aware of such. I’m colorstruck in reverse. We’re both in it for the money; under the prying eyes of ubiquitous security cameras but […]

  2. I am Black « Big Smoke
    on Jun 14th, 2015
    @ 5:18 pm

    […] Lee’s Bamboozled, and a slap in the face of those whose actual heritage is often questioned. I am too white to be Black, too American to be Irish, too urban to be Indian, and yet I am all those things. I am also not what I’m not: My skin isn’t dark, my hair […]

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