It all started a long time ago and innocently enough. And I have to admit, I played a big part in allowing it to happen, but things have changed recently and I have to stand up and make a change.
It started when I was a sophomore or junior in college and I had a conversation with my roommate, Reta. We were discussing Spike Lee's movie, SCHOOL DAZE, which was causing such conflict at the time - "jigaboos" and "wanna-bes" were the lines being drawn among the Black race. Reta and I discussed how slaves were designated as "house" or "field" Negroes based on whether they could pass the "paper bag" test. [If your complexion was lighter than a paper bag, you could work in the house - if not, to the fields you go.] So that was our conversation, when Reta (who is darker than a paper sack) said, "yeah, Kris, you would definitely be a "house Negro", you are the color of pasty wheat bread." Great...according to my friend, I'm not even the color of cooked bread, but yucky-still-to-be-baked dough. Years later, I related this story to my very good friend and co-worker Julie (who is White) and she responded, "But you are not 'pasty wheat bread', you are more of a 'taupe' color...and when you come back from your trips to the islands, you are really more of a 'caramel' color". And that's how it started.
In my closest group of friends at work, I am the only person of color. Let me say for the record, even before I started working where I work, I have maintained a position of distance when it comes to identifying with my racial heritage. Too many years of cringing whenever the news media shows an African American person doing something amazingly stupid have made me often deny my race by saying things like, "I'm not Black, I'm Indian" - which is not a false statement - my parental grandmother's grandmother was a full bloodied Creek Indian. [Ok, you can say that is a stretch, but it is still true!] Having been raised in a home where my parents didn't allow slang, and to this day, my mother gives me strange looks when I use words like "ain't" and "nigga", I shudder whenever I hear a person of color on TV slaughtering the English language. Why is it that I would take upon myself the weight of every Black person's public failures as if they were my own and then turn around and say, "well, that's them, not me, 'cause I'm not like them." So, when issues of race would arise at work, it was easy for me to say, "I'm not Black, I'm taupe." And it became a standing joke...a commentary...a "thing"...and I was fine with it.
Or so I thought.
I guess the uneasiness about the "taupe" joke has been simmering since February 2007 when Barack Obama threw his hat in the Presidential race. Pride in seeing a Black man run for the highest political office in the land made me want to declare my "Blackness" again. But, in February 2007, who really thought that he stood a chance? I have watched him over the last 18 months to see if he would be weeded out, cast aside, dismissed. But as I said in an earlier blog, he's a rock star and last night, I watched with pride as he stood before 84,000 people in Investco Field in Denver, CO as he accepted the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. It is significant that it was 45 years to the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the national lawn in Washington, DC and gave his I HAVE A DREAM speech.
Last weekend, I went to see an exhibit at the High Museum of Art entitled THE ROAD TO FREEDOM. This photographic essay on the Civil Rights Movement literally changed my life. I never knew or recognized, or maybe I just forgot, just what my ancestors went through during that era (and let's face it, the eras preceding). I never knew or realized, or maybe I just forgot, that less than 40 years ago, there were laws in place that said that no matter how much I might proclaim "I'm not Black, I'm taupe", if I'd tried to drink out of a certain water fountain, I could have been jailed...or if I tried to sit in a certain section of a bus, I could have been arrested...or if I dared to speak back, raise my voice, or just look the wrong way at the wrong person at the wrong time, I could have been killed...and no one would have been able to do anything to stop it...and most people would not have even tried. Because of the things I saw in this exhibit, the emotions I experienced, the tears that I shed...I can no longer cavalierly deny the sacrifices of those who went before me. I can no longer neglect my responsibility to reach back and help those who are coming behind me. Yes, there are problems within the Black community...I can either continue to complain about it and do nothing - or I can take a stand and try to stop the foolishness within the realm of my influence.
Earlier this week, I made my friend Julie cry. I didn't mean to, but I did. When I told her that I didn't want to be referred to as "the taupe girl" anymore, I didn't explain to her what I hope I have explained in this blog. As she reads this (and I know she will 'cause she reads EVERY blog I write and provides me with invaluable, loving, supportive feedback - good and bad), I want to publicly tell her what I've already told her in private. I am sorry I made her cry. I want her to know how much I love her. And she needs to know I know she never meant to hurt me or cause me any harm whenever she called me "taupe". She is the most genuine, loving person I know (next to my godsister). In the years that I have known her, she has made such an impact on my life that everyone in my family knows her. Whenever there has been a family crisis, Julie has been there. She prays with me and for me on a daily basis and her friendship is one of God's greatest blessings towards me. 40 years ago, we would not have even been allowed to be friends.
We are living in an amazing time of change for our country. I am not naive enough to believe that when Barack Obama is elected President in November everyone in this country will be happy. Julie and my core group of friends probably will not be happy. In order to maintain our friendships, we don't talk politics - but I know they are not Obama supporters. That is their right and I respect their choice, even if I don't agree with it. I believe they feel the same about my choice. I am not stupid enough to think that years of prejudice - Black v White; Republican v Democrat; straight v gay; rich v poor - will suddenly just disappear. It won't. But I do know this: I can change. I can make a difference. I can declare, loudly and proudly: I'm not taupe. I'm Black.
Have a happy, safe, wonderful holiday weekend.