Paul was in a grocery store the other night with Elias, just to grab a couple of things. He bellied up to the checkout, right behind a guy who was holding forth. Maybe 10 years older than Paul. ” … and yeah,” he said. “I have a special hat I wear that says IMMIGRATION. I only wear it when I go places that I’m going to see a bunch of those d*** Mexicans.”
That was not the end of his speech, but Paul didn’t listen very closely after that, because he was trying to figure out the best thing to say in the event that the guy turned around and saw Elias standing by his leg. Frankly, it seemed like the kind of guy and the kind of situation where the wrong answer might kind of light things up, and Paul is way past the age where a grocery store brawl seems like a good idea on any level.
The guy walked out without seeing Elias (I’m guessing situational awareness is not his best thing), so the point was moot. And Paul was extra nice to the kids running the register and bagging the groceries, who both looked like they wanted to die of mortification.
I don’t know at this point what Elias took from that encounter, if anything. I do know that he hears and absorbs a lot more than we often think. And I know that we’re going to have to have some conversations about this.
Elias is not the first brown person in my family, and this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Twenty years ago, I was taking my niece to Hardee’s to get some treat she had earned by turning in a reading log to her first-grade teacher. We were standing in line, and a kid about the same age in the next line over asked his mom, “Who brought that little n***** baby in here?”
You guys. I felt like I’d been gut-punched. I mean, I knew that word existed and people had said it back when Mark Twain was lacerating people with his pen, but hearing it while I was in line for fries? Directed at someone I loved?
I don’t remember what I did, or what I said. I’m pretty sure that’s because I didn’t say anything, to my eternal shame. I’m not saying I should have had a throwdown in Hardee’s (not only because I would surely have lost), but I definitely should have talked to my niece about it, instead of pretending it hadn’t happened.
But I was young, and I didn’t know what to say. Unfortunately, now I am old, and I still don’t know what to say.
I can say, to my son who does not look like me but is nonetheless irreversibly rooted in my heart, that there are people who say cruel and stupid things. I can say that even those people aren’t just one thing, and it’s complicated. I can say that you can’t take it personally because those kinds of comments are clearly about them and not about you. I can say that you shouldn’t wrestle with a pig because you get dirty and the pig likes it.
I believe all of those things are true. And I believe they’re not going to mean squat when this little d*** Mexican turns up big deep dark eyes to my face and asks me why someone who doesn’t know him hates him.
I know. I know that man’s comment wasn’t directed specifically at Elias, and I know Elias isn’t even Mexican. But that doesn’t really matter, because hatred and ignorance don’t much care about facts. Hatred cares about other. About not us.
The thing is, there are a lot of people like me walking around, who look like us and love someone who looks like not us. Who is a different color, who is gay, who is poor. And when I hear someone make a comment about them, it cuts deep.
I’m sad that I cannot protect my sweet, stubborn, affectionate boy from the people who will assume things about him because he is brown. I am sad for the people who will assume those things. I am sad for the people who will assume things about them, but think he’s an exception. ‘Cause he’s one of us.
Yeah, he is. We are all us.
And I still don’t know what I’m going to say to my son.