Monday, July 21, 2008
Color Blind, Bus Stop Story 2
I have lived much of my life with blinders on, blissfully unaware and naïve about many of the more unpleasant things, some of them right in front of me. Shemeka had removed those blinders for me, if only briefly, one afternoon.
Shemeka was black but she was not. She had African American facial features, with skin fairer than mine and long auburn braids. We had met while doing menial background work as film extras when I was between gigs.
We met again when sitting in the studio audience for the game show, "Win Ben Stein's Money." I think we had to sit through five shows worth of taping. It wasn't worth the minimum wage, even for a full eight-hour work day. At least we were given a lunch break.
There wasn't much to choose from as far as local eateries in the Hollywood neighborhood. Shemeka and I decided on Little Caesars Pizza since it was cheap, fast, and close to the studio. It was only a take out/delivery place, so we sat on a Santa Monica Boulevard bus bench after buying our single slices.
"Unh-uh," Shemeka said through a bite, shaking her head.
"What?" I asked.
"Those girls on the bus, just now. They were looking at us through the window, shooting daggers with their eyes. You could tell."
I didn't understand. "Why? What's wrong?"
Shemeka put her pizza slice down and sighed. "They were black," she explained. "Because we're sitting together, eating, they think we're together."
I chewed, not answering, and stared at her.
"They think I'm betraying my own kind, that I should be with a black guy."
I was genuinely surprised. This was in Los Angeles, not too many years ago, after the turn of the millennium. I myself am the product of an interracial marriage, so there is a lot I take for granted as far as 'dating outside of your race' goes.
It reminded me of a discussion I had with restaurant coworkers. Most of us thought that interracial marriages and mixed kids helped to diminish prejudice. I'll never forget, though, Nia stating that "you lose your culture when you dilute the blood." I had to agree with her. I can only 'be so Japanese,' my niece even less so, who is only a quarter Japanese.
One of my Disney roommates, Ken, was black and he had only dated white women when we lived together. After a trip to London, he told me how impressed he was to have seen so many interracial couples out in public, limited to the UK metropolitan area as it may have been. I had thought his attitude progressive and refreshing.
I had to rethink that attitude after sitting with Shemeka, though. Ken and I had both grown up in middle-class, mostly-white neighborhoods. We were used to 'acting white' and being 'treated white,' despite our respective appearances. At Disneyland, coworkers teased us for being the 'whitest black guy' and the 'whitest Asian guy' they knew. And although Ken and I have never verbally expressed it to each other, we both know that having a Caucasian significant other somehow makes us more acceptable in white society, at least in our own minds.
As long as we "knew our place," perhaps.
I didn't work as a film extra for very long, and I never saw Shemeka again, after that. But I will never forget her. And I will never be too excited about interracial couples, at least in public, now that I am even more aware of the fact that not everyone thinks it's as wonderful as I do.
(The woman in the photo above is Kenosha Robinson. Go here to read her story on race identity and appearance)