It’s funny, the tricks that words play with us sometimes. We listen closely to the words that people choose. The precise words. The connotations and implications. The order of the words. The split-second but pregnant pause between clauses that alters the statement’s meaning. Diction and inflection. Comedic careers are launched with this fuel; political careers are burned with it. But they mean something in every day life, too. And sometimes they crash into us and leave us reeling.
The H-bomb is four years old now; he has been for over a month. He surprises me every day, and on Friday he surprised me in a way that has left me meditative. I tried to let this one go–to smile about it, and tell myself that it wasn’t significant or meaningful, and to move on–but after two days, I am still thinking about it.
We had gone out to dinner. Pizza, nothing special. We sat and ate our pieces of pizza. H. was on this third. (I was done after three.) Another family was on their way out. H. looked up and raised his eyebrows. He turned to me and said: “Daddy, did you see that? That person had black skin!”
Not knowing what else to say, I swallowed my bite of pepperoni and nodded. “Yes he did. Lots of people have black skin.”
H. nodded and went back to his pizza. And that was that. End of discussion. No further questions, your honor.
He hasn’t said another word about it. I’m the one who keeps thinking about it.
Let’s back up a moment for some context. We live in Essex Junction, Vermont. This isn’t exactly a bustling international metropolis. Compared to where I grew up (the suburbs of D.C., on the Maryland side) this is Lily White Country. Hardly diverse by the standards that I know. But that being said, this is not even close to the first time that H. has been around a person with dark skin. Why the sudden (albeit most-fleeting) interest in skin?
On the one hand, it bothers me. It feels like some small innocence lost. Before that day, we were all just people–and he just didn’t notice or care what skin your body wore. Now he has noticed, and remarked on it. Did I do something or say something? Was this my fault? Did he pick this up somewhere else?
But I think about his words: “That person had black skin.” That person. Had. Black skin. The skin belongs to the person. And the person? He’s just some guy out having pizza with his family. And H.’s inflection? His tone of voice? He asked about the skin the same he asked me about some guy’s Stormtrooper t-shirt this morning.
Perhaps I’m seeing something that isn’t there, but as I reflect on my own childhood, I believe it’s safe to say that my worldview had “black people” and not “people with black skin”. I don’t know where that came from, and I can’t say exactly when that changed–but in my memories, that was how I had constructed the world at four years old, and for many years afterward. Looking at those words now, they feel like a confession. “That’s not how I think. That’s not what I believe. That’s not how I feel today.”
With that in mind, I must say that I am left with a strange feeling after that episode over pizza. I feel embarrassed that this is something that he would even comment upon. But I also think that this embarrassment is my own–that I’m just reflecting on my own childhood and confronting it through a new and unexpected lens. But on the other end of the emotional spectrum, I feel a peculiar pride–that H. just sees a person that happened to have very dark skin. And somewhere in the middle, I feel like I can’t even tell him that I have that pride, like that would only call attention to that bizarre social territory that he knows nothing about. I know that I can’t shield him from that forever, but if he is going to see the differences at all, I want him to see them that way–and that way only–for as long as possible.
For now I’ll keep my mouth shut. Act like it’s nothing, like he’s Captain Obvious on his third piece of pizza. “Lots of people have black skin.” But under my own skin, I’m beaming.