Monday, July 15, 2013

When You Carry Your Difference On Your Skin

I am a white woman. My children are not white. They come in varying hues of brown and I suspect a couple of them could pass for "white" Hispanic (whatever the hell that term means). However  a couple of them have been signified at their tender age for the color of their skin. My son was told at five that "Mexicans carry guns in their pockets" and I suspect there was more because for at least two years, he refused his Latino half. My daughter was asked once what language she spoke by snotty girls. Clearly a brown girl wouldn't speak English. Later my son was told that "Mexicans are good with knifes." Of course I'm bothered at the comment aimed at my daughter but I am especially concerned with the implications of violence in the things said to my son.

My son will never likely experience the same level of prejudice as a young black man but I know that at least here in Georgia, he will certainly bear some of the weight of carrying your difference imprinted on your very skin. I know that I have already had to teach him to be careful with police. There was a day when I had to talk to him about how it wasn't okay to play with realistic looking guns at the park, and had to tell him why the white boys he was playing with likely didn't have to worry about that kind of thing. He has seen me awake while his dad is out at shows because I am worried about the police stopping my husband because he is brown. H has already had many talks with Umberto about what it means to carry your difference on your skin.

When Jude was a very small baby, people would say to me "She doesn't look like she has Down syndrome." It happened all the time. When she was first laid on my chest, I could see the physical markers of Down syndrome in the shape of her eyes, the placement of her tiny ears, the fat around her neck. People told me I saw it because I was looking for those signs. At first, those signs were all I could see. They were glaringly obvious to me every time I looked at her like a neon sign that was blinking "Your child has Down syndrome." After a couple of hours, I was able to just see Jude in all her beauty. But it's not like the signs just went away. They were still there. I still see them. I would be lying to say they don't. I've just learned to not make assumptions based on the slant of my daughter's eyes.

When people tell me that Jude does not look she has Down syndrome, I am always edgy because I feel like they mean it as a compliment. And I wonder why that would be something to get excited over. It would be like telling me that my son doesn't look Latino. And I remember  reading Passing by Nella Larsen in college. In the story, a young African American woman who is "light skinned" passes for white. She actively works at passing and marries a white racist man. It's a sad story, tragic and a telling commentary on the brutality of carrying difference in a visible way. I can't help but wonder if people think it would be better if Jude could pass for a nuerotypical person.

As Jude gets older, her difference is more noticeable. I hear less and less that she doesn't look like she has Down syndrome. I get the looks in the grocery story. I know those looks because I got them with all my kids. They are the looks that say "Your child is different even from you." People used to ask me if I adopted my own children. Now I can see other questions formulating. Questions like "What's wrong with her?" Or subtle hints perhaps to draw out if my child has a "condition." These are the times when difference is like a wound that festers and pains me. Because I do not know quite how to explain that yes my children are different but only in the differences that all our children have in their assertion away from us and towards the world.

The way that we attach signification to visible differences has dire consequences because those significations wash way the humanness of the person who stands before us. For Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin was a thug. He did not see what I see when I look at pictures of Trayvon. I see a young man on that bright beautiful cusp of adulthood. I taught many young men like him, and yes, I had to learn to think outside of my own racist fears and assumptions. I had to root out things I didn't even know existed inside me. I had to do it not just to be a better teacher but so I could be a better mother and wife. When those off duty deputies who cuffed Ethan Saylor and threw him on the floor, they did not see Ethan as a son, a brother, a friend. They someone who had a mental disability that they assumed would make him more of a threat. So they stomped that threat out and inadvertently stomped out his life. When deputies pepper sprayed and beat Antonio Martinez , who has Down syndrome, all they saw was a Hispanic male. They were looking for a Hispanic male who didn't even begin to match Martinez's physical appearance but they never got past his color.

When you carry your difference marked on your body, you are also forced to carry the significations of the society in which you life. I think it's time we start working on the change. Now, before more and more of our children die at the hands of those who are unable to see beyond the color of one's skins or the shape of one's eyes.


Down Wit Dat said...

Excellent post.

Stephanie said...

This post really hit home for me. My husband is Asian (Filipino to be specific). He has told me about many of his experiences growing up in a very white neighborhood and people saying all kinds of things about Asians (and of course they always said he was Chinese because none of them seemed to get that there are more than Chinese people in Asia). He was also expected to be a certain way--extremely smart, a world class musician, go to college at an Ivy League school and be a doctor.

It's these presumptions and racial/ethnic biases that make people put up walls against the rest of the world. I too taught a lot of young black men that other teachers would say "they're scary" when they say them on my class roster. All it took was for me to get to know them as a person to know they weren't scary, just totally misunderstood because they were black.

I am so sad that you had to have that talk with your son because you shouldn't have to in an ideal world. I worry for my Owen since he is more Asian than white and has Down syndrome. I know people are going to judge him on those 2 things and I'm not sure how I would explain it to him in the future.

Extranjera said...

Great post Ginger.
Trying to check my privilege.

Holly said...

Hey, Mama, I didn't know you had a blog and just saw this on Jisun Lee's FB wall. Love it! I'm putting you in my blogroll and recommends on Whoopsie Piggle.

Ginger Stickney said...

Thanks everyone who responded. I hadn't intended to write about Trayvon or about Ethan but it happened. I've been thinking a lot lately about the complexity of how we carry our differences. I have two children whose disabilities are not readily apparent and they have their own set of struggles. I have ADHD and I struggled as the weird kid for many years.

Stephanie, I hope for all kids sake that maybe we can change the world for them:) I have high hopes.

Holly! so glad you posted. I was wanting to add your blog here as well since I ADORE your writing. Waiting for your book to come out:)

Alice Ike said...

Well said, Ginger. Well said and, unfortunately, true.