I recently finished reading the book, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son by Tim Wise. Here is a memory this book managed to dredge up in me.
I was about 9 years old when my parents were divorced. In those days one parent had “custody” and the other “visiting rights” and paid some amount in child-support. My mother had custody of my two sisters and me. She went back to work and needed to find someone to take care of us. Cheryl was in my Girl Scout Troup. Her family lived a few blocks from the school. Her mom was willing to take care of us before and after school. At the time it did not occur to me that this family was black. I can’t explain it, really. Though my neighborhood was somewhat ethnically mixed, there were not many black families. My friend Cheryl had darker skin and brown eyes and, what I would call at the time, frizzy hair. But for some reason they did not look like black people that I had met or seen.
Cheryl’s father worked and her mother stayed home with the kids. They lived in the same kind of house that we all lived in at the time. I remember being excited that I would get to spend time with my friend every day before and after school.
We would come up with all sorts of ways to entertain ourselves. One of the things that we would do was create plays and perform them for our moms. One of the plays that we created was Cinderella. When dividing up the roles I declared that I should be Cinderella, leaving the roles of the wicked step-mother to Cheryl and step-sisters to our younger sisters. Why should I be Cinderella, I argued? Because I was the only one with blond hair and blue eyes and we all know (Thank you, Walt Disney) that Cinderella has blond hair and blue eyes. Cheryl was upset that she couldn’t be the lead of our play. When her mother found out my reasoning for being Cinderella--and Cheryl not being Cinderella--she was upset too. She told my mother, who tried to explain to me that just because the Cinderella in the animated version was blond and blue-eyed, it didn’t mean that other versions of Cinderella couldn’t look different. Somewhere in the midst of all of this I came to the realization that my friend, Cheryl, was black.
As I remember it, things were never quite the same. Not long after, my friend’s mom said that she was unable to take care of us anymore. I don’t remember why. Sometime before I graduated from elementary school Cheryl and her family moved out of the neighborhood and I lost track of her.
|A different occasion of pretending, with my younger sisters.|
Amazing that almost 50 years later this memory would resurface. I can’t stop thinking of it. I wish my mother were still around so that I could check out my recollections with her. I asked my sister what she remembered but she would have only been about 6 years old and she doesn’t remember much of that time. And so, with my 9-year-old-blond-blue-eyed understanding and nearly 50 year-old memories, I think about privilege. My mother did her best to teach me that all people are equal, no matter what their race. I don’t think I would ever intentionally discriminate against someone of another race, even as a 9-year-old. Had we done the play, Snow White, would I have agreed that Cheryl should do that role because she had dark hair and dark eyes? I don’t know. But I realize that I grew up in a reality where all of the movies and images that I saw around me were white. The normative was white and everyone else was the exception. And because I had blond hair and blue eyes, I was special. How did that impact me? How did that impact Cheryl? I wish I could talk with Cheryl now. I wish I could find out how she remembers the “Cinderella Incident.” I wish I could say, “I’m sorry.”