White Just Like You

By Teka Lark (April 3, 2017)

I just got through seeing “I’m Not Your Negro” by James Baldwin. In it he said until he was 5-years old he didn’t realize he was Black and it reminded me of when I first figured out that in the United States I had a special designation.

When I was a 5-year-old on my family’s weekly Friday outing to the Gemco grocery store, I followed a woman around the store. I had mistaken her for my mother.

At some point in the cereal aisle the woman noticed that my chatter was being directed towards her and she stared at me.

I looked up at her and was a bit startled, then I said, “I apologize. I thought you were my mommy.”

She narrowed her eyes and slightly grinned, “I can’t be your mother. I’m white and you’re black.” As she said this she leaned over, touched my arm, stretched out her arm and held her slightly California suntanned skin next to my maplewood colored skin.

She could have just said we’re going to find your mom, but she felt she needed to explain the concept of race to a 5-year-old. I guess she thought she was being helpful.

I did not see it that way. I was nice and I had apologized for mistaking her for being my mother, but she couldn’t just have that.

So I responded, “My mom’s skin is lighter than yours, so she is white, we’re white and she’s prettier than you too.”

She stared at me and at this moment my mother with a frantic look on her face came down the aisle and grabbed my hand and as she pulled me away I looked back and mouthed to her, “See, prettier than you, white just like you.”

As a little girl I didn’t understand that being white and being black had nothing to do with skin color or maybe I did…

My mother always finds this story horrifying and changes the subject when I tell it.

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