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Monday, October 08, 2007

Racial Tensions at the Local Car Wash (Children Mentioned)

Updated at the bottom at 8:18 p.m.

My car was in urgent need of a cleaning. Which is code for "I've never washed the car and I park it outside and I've had it for three years." But please don't tell my father who always preaches good car care. Truly, the rain washes away a lot of shit. Just not all of the shit.

And as of late, there have been swarms of bees on my car when I go out in the morning. They scatter when I drive away and lay in wait for the moment I return. I turn off the engine and eight bees swoop down and start feasting on the pollen that streaks my hood.

Since it is my first time at the car wash, I pull up to the pay booth a little dazed and uncertain of what happens next. The woman working the register makes faces at the Wolvog and ChickieNob and finally says, "they're really cute."

The Wolvog, ever the flirt when he sees a blond, smiles shyly and says, "thank you!"

And this is a transcript of the rest of the conversation.

Woman: Are they mixed?

Me: Mixed? Boy/girl twins? Yes, the one in pink is a girl...

Woman: No, I mean mixed.

Me: Fraternal? Boy/girl...

Woman: Mixed. Like is your husband a different race? Do they look like your husband?

Me: Um... No, we're all the same race. Do I just pull up to that building over there?

Woman: Then are you mixed? What are you? Are you an American?

Me: Yes, I'm from here. I grew up here. My parents are from New Jersey.

Woman: You're kidding me! You're an American?

Me: I think you could probably tell from my accent that I'm American...

Woman: But you've got to be mixed or something. I can't believe you're American. You don't look American. And I'm not racist. But you can tell that you must be mixed-race.

Me: No...

Woman: You think I'm racist. But I'm not. I just don't think you look American.

Me: Okay...well, I just need to wash the car...

Woman: Your kids are really cute. But they've got to be mixed-raced.

By this point, I finally have my credit card back and I'm pulling away slowly, mentally noting that this is a good reason for why I shouldn't get my car washed again for the next three years.

From the backseat, The Wolvog translates mixed-race into toddler-speech and asks, "Mommy, what's mc-ray?"

And still trying to figure out where my car is supposed to be in order to be de-crudded, I mutter, "a mc-ray is something you get with mcnuggets."

Thus begins another missed parenting moment.

In case you haven't been able to pick this up yet from reading my blog...I'm a Jew. The olive-skin? The dark eyes? The long curly hair? It's all just my Eastern European Jewry. I thought I'd just place that on the table since you can't see me right now and I'm sure you are wondering, "well...what ethnicity is she if people are asking these questions?"

But what did she think was the mix? White and something else? Middle Eastern and Latina? Half-meerkat, half-woman? Completely-fucked-up-in-the-head paired with high-functioning?

My whole life, I have had people out of curiosity play "guess her ethnicity" with me. It is a favourite game of people standing next to me in checkout lines ("your hair is so beautiful. Are you Middle Eastern?). Or pumping gas at the next car over ("Chica, I don't believe you. You have to speak Spanish! You're Mexican."). Or taking my order at a restaurant ("Italian? Right?"). This is pretty much a weekly occurrence. This has been going on my whole life.

Josh finds the whole blatant show of racism disguised as curiosity an interesting phenomenon and when I relayed this latest conversation to him, he laughed hysterically at this woman's social ineptitude. He told me that I had to write it down--it was one of the best ones yet.

But when she was talking, all I could think about was when it would start for my daughter, my beautiful olive-skinned daughter who has my dark-colouring, curly hair, dark eyes. And how she would feel when the questions started coming in earnest. And how they would make her view other people.


I think the greater thing that floored me this time is this thought that if your child looks like you, they are destined to repeat many similar experiences--both good and bad--that you experienced as a child. For me, this questioning affected me differently depending on where I was in my life and how comfortable I was in my own skin. In a blond-haired Barbie world, I was pretty uncomfortable with my looks. In college I was considered exotic on my blue-eyed Midwestern campus so I embraced looking different from my other dorm-mates. By now, so far beyond a time when I'm concerned about what people think of me (except when I'm about to go to meet a roomful of other bloggers at the D.C. Blogging get-togethers and I'm scared shitless. Sorry if I always seem quiet in person), these questions are an annoyance. The social ineptitude of others has its advantages too. Other people's assumptions have gotten me out of many an annoying conversation--it's easy to feign a lack of English knowledge when people start with the assumption that you don't know the language.

But until today, I had never considered how my daughter, who does look remarkably like me, will go through something similar too. I find the people who are the most rabid with the questioning tend to be younger. A case in point, the woman at the car wash was probably in her early twenties. Therefore, this isn't a problem that is going away. It is a problem my daughter will face too.

I think we're so conditioned or perhaps even biologically driven to create children in our image. But I, personally, had never stopped to think of the drawbacks of having a child in your image. And having them walk the same path that you walked. Will I be able to give her different skills because I lived it too? Should we work on comebacks? If she didn't look like me, there could be a different set of problems, so it isn't as if "woe is me, if she just didn't look like me she would skip through life unscathed by idiots." I'm simply commenting that I never thought about the inherent drawbacks--I only focused on the advantages of having a child reflect my image.

I've worked so hard in our house to take our focus off of looks and place it on action. We talk about how smart she is, how clever, how creative. Do I sometimes say, "you're so beautiful" too? Of course. I was always concerned with how she would come to view her body simply as a girl living in a body-focused society. That was my whole reason for taking the pressure off of looks.

But I had never considered this other side--that her looks would become a thing of comment just because a person couldn't "place" her. We're not only body-focused, we're obsessed with all labeling. And I know I do it too. My labeling is uniquely slanted to reflect my own interests--I am constantly assessing families and wondering which were built through treatments or adoption and which were built through good, old-fashioned sex (what? What's that? How do you have a baby from sex?). I'm noting if a person's last name is Jewish.

The Wolvog and ChickieNob are starting to note differences, and I've found it interesting that their commentary leans towards different actions rather than different looks. I've wondered if this is the work of my focus-shift or if this is the natural tendency of children: first focus on what people do and then focus on how they look. And how much will this work fly out the window the second they start encountering the guessing games.


Egged Out said...

I can't believe that woman! How rude! Plus, to act suprised that you are "American" as if Americans only look one way. Jeez. She needs to get out of what ever sheltered neighborhood/world she lives in and take a look around. Does she think that anyone who doesn't look like her is not American? I am usually a lurker but that woman got to me. You were very patient with her.

Elizabeth said...

Not only is there no such thing as "racial purity" (the assumption underlying the notion of "mixed-race") the notion of "American" as (always and only) "white" is very, very dangerous ideology. It always stuns me how prevalent this point of view is...
This kind of thing makes me feel furious. I do what I can.

The Town Criers said...

I think since it happens so often--I am asked these types of questions so often or have people play "guess the ethnicity" everywhere I go (and it's everywhere I go--suburbs or city, midwest or east coast) that I just start skipping past the reaction to it. I mean my reaction to it beyond trying to nip the conversation closed. I may miss out on a lot of educating moments, but it's sort of like IF--you need to choose your conversations.

Abby said...

I hear you .... I have gotten asked if I am everything from Italian, Egyptian, Lebonese, and Mexican.....which would be fine, but I am also the East European Jewish Decent. DH says I could blend into any county we visit. But, way rude of lady at the carwash. She should have some tack.

DD said...

I'm curious: just what does "mixed" look like compared to "straight-up"?

And as a matter of fact, only the Indian Nations can call themselves 100% American.

It's one thing for her to have asked (rude, but as you said, expected), but to repeatedly ask you and doubt you? What a hag.

May said...

Does she mean Halle Berry can't be American then? Or Will Smith? How about Angelina Jolie - does she look Un-American? Jennifer Lopez? She was born in the Bronx.

I mean, WHAT?

Argh. Grr.

(When I was a kid at school, I was often asked if my very curly hair meant I was 'mixed'. Err. Well. Actually, yes, my family is mixed race, but sod off anyway. Since when is it anyone's business, and since when does it matter why I have exceedingly curly hair? So this kind of thing GETS UP MY NOSE).

Also, in front of your kids? IN FRONT OF the kids?


Anonymous said...

It never ceases to amaze me how insensitive and uneducated people are. Argh...How frustrating!

Bea said...

Yeah... tactometer not really detecting anything there.

I've actually had this once. Someone asked me if I was "true Australian". Sure, I said. Born and bred. "But," they continued, "I often find with Australians that their great-grandparents or something came from other countries. Was that the case with you?"

Ah... we were only colonised 200yrs ago. Do I look Aboriginal?

Dazed and bemused, I started out on my family tree. I got as far as saying, "Well, my great-grandmother was from London..." when the person cut in with, "Oh, so you're British!"


Mr Bea has the brunette/olive-skinned look, too. It's great - often when we travel people automatically start talking to him in the local language. I've always been secretly jealous. My sister has similar colouring. No-one seems to ask either of them their ethnicity, although people do have trouble wrapping their heads around the fact my sister and I are, well, sisters. My mother often got asked where my colouring came from as it doesn't really fit in with the family. Bit of a rude question, now I think of it.


Beagle said...

I have so much to say on this topic, but I'll leave it at this: Wow, you handled that well!

Bea said...

And no, the person in the first conversation wasn't trying to make a point about the colonisation of Australia. She was a perfectly earnest old dear.


The Oneliner (Christina) said...

good word people are stupid. i'm sorry you couldn't JUST WASH YOUR CAR. ya' think?

Wordgirl said...

That is incredibly awful.

I applaud you for not running her over with the car.

I had a similar experience with ignorance -- though not with race but rather sexual orientation.

Recently I was talking to a woman who I consider a friend, though not a close friend -- and we were talking about a fundraiser at her children's montessori school -- and the conversation ran to these gentleman who were holding the silent action at their showpiece house...a couple -- and I asked...oh, do they have children at the school? She looked at me blankly.

No, they're gay.


It didn't even occur to her that they could be parents too.

I guess all we can do is continue to have the conversations...but it is soooo hard to put up with.

Fertilize Me said...

ARE YOU KIDDING ME'????? How you remained so well mannered is beyond me

Road Blocks and Roller Coasters said...

I can't believe that woman pushed it so far. Like you, I get asked that question all the time, though I'm half Italian and half Puerto Rican, so I suppose it's a legitimate question. The odd thing is, I don't think of myself as being bi-racial, but I guess I am. I've grown so accustomed to the question being asked, I actually try to have fun with the guessing game. It makes it interesting to see what people really know about the world and the people around them.

orodemniades said...

Where the hell was this woman from?? I couldn't figure out wth she was on about...

I hate crap like that...and yeah, I fully expect to be hearing a lot of it in the future, because Mr Oro is white and I am not.

Funnily enough, I got a bit of it in Scotland, too, but not so much a 'what are you' as much as 'Are you Spanish?' And 'Are you from New Zealand?' and 'Are you from the Caribbean?'. Like you, I thought my standard American accent would give me away, but no...and isn't that an odd mix of countries?? Here's I'm just obviously a mixed race person who's quite clearly part black - so I'm Black irl.

I remember one mother and toddler at work who was really po'd when another customer said, 'Oh, is his daddy colored, then?'. I was all, girl, get used to it.

I don't know why people have to be such idiots about that. I mean, if you're curious, just ask! Being a nosy B, I always ask if I'm curious, although I'm generally really good at figuring out peoples ancestry. Which is, btw, a great way of finding out what you want to know. However, never ask if someone's an American or not - that's just rude.

Jess said...

People are incredibly stupid.

If you say, "oh, well, I'm jewish" is that enough for people? Would it shut them up?

LJ said...

I too, never wash my car, and my dad preaches good car care. And if my car had bees? I'd never use it. Ever. Like you and crickets.

But those questions. Who ASKS that stuff. And I hate the American = White thing. Irks me to no end. I am so sorry you had to go through that, and with the kids, no less.

Sunny said...

WOW! I would expect this in the backwoods of America. Yep I have lived in many of backwoods places but where you live, we live.... STUPID! For real who does that? I teach a classroom of children where everyone is from a different place. Each looks different. Hearing their stories amaze me. You live where I live. STUPID PEOPLE! I am so sorry for you. STUPID PEOPLE!

Oh I love the DC blogger comment you made in your update. You have NO PLACE to be worried, embarrassed or afraid EVER. You are the QUEEN of blogging. You amaze me to NO END! Talk you crazy woman. Okay I am the one who should SHUT UP when we meet. Me and my mouth get me in SO MUCH TROUBLE!

HUGS to you today. I enjoyed some really good one in your honor!~

Kim said...

Wow! Talk about a conversation that wouldn't end? Sounds like you handled it with grace and ChickieNob and Wolvog saw that, too.

You're an awesome mother for stressing the important things, not just looks! Amazing, Mel, really.

electriclady said...

Hmm, yes, I think about this a lot w/regard to my daughter, who IS mixed race (but looks a lot more like me, i.e. Asian, than her white father). Your update re: children having the same experiences as us made me think...I've been very concerned about living in a racially diverse place (as I've written on my blog recently) because of how hard it was for me growing up in a mostly white (mostly blond and blue-eyed to boot) area. But my husband thinks I am projecting too much and that my daughter may have a completely different experience, no matter where we live, because she is a completely different person. I agree, to a point, but I think racism is racism, you know?

T said...

So you're mixed meerkat and what now? (I'm emailing you - I think I snapped a pic of kin).

I used to dye my hair jet black when I was (much) younger - I was told that I looked french, spanish, mexican, etc. That's when I learned that people are not only stupid, but that they suck - actually it was before then, but those instances reinforced it, although some were great conversation starters. btw - I really enjoyed having people guess my ethnicity - yes, I'm all over the board, aren't I?

I actually was afraid of those things I would hand down to A and lo and behold - she definitely has my worst traits (bad sleep, rebellious, daredevil, mouthy!!). But she is funny. Must get that from her father.

Anonymous said...

As another person who gets asked this a ton - I'm not at all bothered by the question. I'm only bothered when the reaction implies that they look at me differently once they know the answer. People who celebrate the answer I find refreshing.

I find that I even ask the same question of people - not out of anything negative, but out of an interest in learning more about them. I find that what makes this country so wonderful is that it is so full of color and I love to learn about people's origin and their life stories.

There is such beauty in those differences.

amy said...

I wonder what this girl thinks "Americans" look like. How sad.


Starfish said...

I think the only real comeback in these kinds of situations is "What's the difference??". Being italian american I get that question too - many think I'm hispanic or jewish. And once I was even told that I was "white, but not white-white" whatever that means. I agree, you were very patient with that woman...I would have been much more rude...

I think as long as you teach your children that it doesn't really matter what you are on the outside, it's the inside that counts, they will do just fine.

lori said...

i am horrified at your experience b/c the person interrogating you wouldn't let up, she doesn't seem to understand what it is to be an american, and she harassed you in front of your kids and included them in the harassment.

but, i have to say that i'm one of those nosey, curious people who are interested in ethnicity. i am half sicilian and am a 2nd generation american on that side. growing up, the sicilian part of my family was a HUGE part of my life and 100% of my identity (i barely recognized that i'm only half sicilian). i'm ALWAYS looking for other sicilians b/c i feel a deep connection with the italian side of my family. although i grew up in an area of the country that is home to a very large italian community, i now live in a part of the country that is home to very few italians, so my search seems to be never-ending.

i've asked people with olive skin, dark straight or curly hair, and dark eyes if they were italian. i NEVER meant anything bad by it. but, i'm learning from your experience.

i've never stopped to think about what my questions feel like to the other person, nor have i stopped to explain why i'm asking. so, from here on out, i will hold my questions and find another way to try to open a dialogue about possible sicilian heritage.

also, i'm not JUST interested in meeting other italians...i am pretty nosey and curious about ALL people. but, i have never purposely asked about heritage unless i suspect the person shares mine. i'm just trying to find that connection i used to have with my extended family and am missing!

now the wiser,

Artblog said...

I'm shocked she asked you that at all, its so politically incorrect to go on about mixed anyone! I'd have told her she was being very rude!

jenn said...

wow. I can't believe the rudeness of that woman. your grace in answering is great.

My family has a very diverse heritage (well- all over europe, east to west) and we have been asked about it many different times throughout the years. I've never minded when the questions are friendly inquiries about heritage- it's actually pretty nice to start a dialogue about where our families have come from. but to ask if you are an american & insist you can't be because of looks! amazing.

ms. c said...

Wow, I have so much to comment on this post, I'm not even certain where to start.
I am blue-eyed and brown curly-haired descendant of Eastern-European Jews, The first of whom came to Canada (and the US) more than 4 genrations ago. While I am a proud and practicing Jew, there is no doubt (to me) that the answer to "where am I from" is Canada.
I think this sharing of your experience particularly struck a cord with me because it is one that is visited upon me so often. Mostly, surprisingly, it is in a business setting where I have clients sitting in my home. When the question is asked my anti-semitic flag goes up. (My Jewish clients would know right away I am Jewish, so it's the my non-Jewish clientele that usually asks.) I know (and trust me, I am not being paranoid,) that they are looking for me to say "Jewish", but I am adamant about replying "Canadian".
After these conversations (where the askers usually hide behind a "Oh, I thought you might be Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, etc..." comment) I am left wondering why it is that I have to (in other peoples' minds) choose between being Candadian and Jewish (or Canadian and Italian, and so on). Isn't this supposed to be the great melting pot of Canada (and the US)?
It is so very infuriating to deal with such closed-minded people who 1-feel it their right to ask such questions; and 2-feel the need to do so.
But (oy, she is not done!) the issue that you raised concerning your children in the future also hit home. My husband is Portuguese (as in born in Portugal) and a naturalized Canadian who is also a Jew by choice. Since he fields comments of "You're not really Jewish!" to "There are Portuguese Jews?", I am left to wonder (and yes, worry) what my children will have to deal with from the different environments and communities that they will be part of as they grow up.
Thanks for the very thought-provoking post.

Tina said...

I can't believe someone would do that to you...and then say they are not racist. PUHLEEEZ! Anyone who is going to ask you more than three times has a problem, no matter what they say otherwise.

America is a "melting pot," isn't it? Does it really matter what you are when all you want to do is wash your car? It is always good to know your heritage and celebrate that - but, if you are an American, you are an American, right?

It would have been one thing for her to have said, "Wow! You have some very interesting features! What nationality are you?" But, to ask "Are you mixed?" over and over again is uneducated, insulting and verging on racist. I am not sure if I would have handled that with as much grace as you.

baggage said...

Man, she was rude.

But this:
"Completely-fucked-up-in-the-head paired with high-functioning?"

was hilarious.

bleu said...

I have a different take on the whole "what is your child" thing. One because I haven't gone through what you have your whole life, and two because of my science background. I am a Euro mutt but mostly Irish by descent. I have blue eyes and tons of freckles and brown with some auburn in it hair.
My son is half East Indian and has amazing skin tone and dark dark brown almost black eyes. I love explaining his looks, but it is because of my brain. When I used to teach high school science I always did a lesson on skin color and facial and hair features of different races. I loved getting kids to realize that physical traits come from geography, from climate. That dark skin is for sun protection. That curly hair is the same. It was a great equalizer for many kids raised by racist parents to realize that biology and geography are what makes differences, not some arbitrary reason they may have heard in their home. I was raised by ab extremely racist father. It sickened me my entire life. I find it amazing how an educated man could have such ignorant beliefs.
I personally have a love of dialects and accents. I have lived in a few different countries and just am fascinated with language. I often ask people with accents where they come from. A few times I have offended others when the say they are American and become incensed. I try to politely explain I am not asking where they were born, but where they got their accent. If their parent is from another country, or their grandparent, if they speak another language. It is from a love of diversity but a few times I have been so saddened when I upset someone. I know it is their own history that brings how they take it.
I have a friend who is Mexican. Her skin is gorgeous. She is always saying she wishes she was lighter because in her culture being darker than other family members was such a bad thing growing up. I have no idea how that felt for her. I grew up wishing I could erase my freckles and hating how I could only burn and never tan. I do know I think her skin is flawless. Her first child, who is gorgeous has darker skin as well. It is so beautiful. She went through a lot of struggle for a time worried her child would go through what she went through. We had a long discussion one day and I told her that she was grown now and knew her skin color was not and indicator of anything but melanin. She said yes. I then told her that her child would feel what she "placed" on her. If she raised her telling her how beautiful she was and how she wouldn't have to worry about a sunburn or trying to tan that it would probably be what her child grew up believing. She grew up believing what she did not because of what others said but because it was what her parents believed. She had a sort of epiphany about it and has mentioned how much a difference it made in how she looked at it. She doesn't stress like she used to anymore but she finds she does have to re-adjust her way of looking at it from time to time when her old tapes play in her head.
This is not to say the woman at the carwash is anything but a total twit. I just wanted to share some experiences I have had.

Samantha said...

That woman was really over the top with "American" as numerous other people have noted.

It is interesting how children inherit from us both the things we want (they look like us) and the things we don't want (they look like us). I'm glad you are stressing more than appearance.

Somewhat Ordinary said...

I can't believe she wouldn't let it go! I wouldn't say she is racist just ignorant. Who does that? And, what exactly DOES an American look like? Isn't this the Melting Pot? It is interesting I've never really gotten this kind of reaction as I'm of Italian/ Eastern European Jewish descent

Funny story...when I was about 3 years old I was at the store with my mom when we saw a mixed-race family. My mom said I walked up to the little girl and said, "My daddy's black too." Now my dad is Italian and has black wavy hair and olive skin, but he doesn't really look anything but Italian. My mother just said "No sweetie your daddy isn't black." I was very precocious and kept insisting that because his hair was black and his mustache was black he WAS black (this was the 70's so well before African American was used). She said I spent the rest of the shopping trip singing a made up song about my black daddy. She said the entire time she was getting weird looks from all the little southern ladies shopping.

I was a toddler though so I wonder what your car wash ladies excuse is!!

Baby Step said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
FattyPants said...

I get the other side of this all the time. I am very fair, blue eyes, redish blonde hair, the whole thing. My son on the other hand has olive skin, almost black eyes, and dark brown hair. I used to get asked constantly if he's mixed, or if I would have rather he took on my 'american' atributes. I must say it got a lot easier once we moved into this neighborhood, but every once in a while it catches me off gaurd. As for when kids start to notice these differences on their own it wasn't really until he started school and then it was more of a why are there so many different colors in my class question. Eh, I could go on forever about this. You did handle it well. I probably would not have been as patient.

Baby Step said...

This really hit a note for me. My mother is from India and my father is from Eastern Europe...I am first generation. No one can ever figure "what I am" and I probably get the question daily. Am I Greek? Italian? Persian? I have fairly pale skin (especially in the winter, jet black hair and hazel eyes... but get very tan in the summer. My first name is Indian and I get the question all the time: "Were your parents hippies or something?" and when I respond that it is an Indian name and that I am 1/2 Indian, many people look at me in disbelief. I have had many rude comments about my name - my favorite is when someone looks at me with distaste and says, "What an INT-TER-ESTING name..."

I also had to deal with the kids making fun of my name: I was surrounded by kids named Anne and Jennifer and Sarah and Laura. What was up with my weird name? It was really difficult, and in 7th grade I decided to go by a westernized version of my name. My family refused to call me anything but my given name, so I gave up. Now I love my name. LOVE IT. But it took a while.

I grew up on a college campus in the 70s, in a pretty affluent California town. My mom was one of the only "brown" faces in the neighborhood. When I was in kindergarten, one day I came home and asked her why I had a brown mommy when all my friends had a pink one. Undoubtedly this was a question that my little 5 year old friends were asking me. My mom told me I could go next door to see Mrs. D. She was pink, maybe I could ask her if she would be my mommy. I said, "OKAY!" and marched out the front door. My mom watched me through the window and after several minutes, I came running back home. I gave her a big hug and said, "I like having a brown mommy, I don't want a pink one". She said, "What made you change your mind?" and I said, "I couldn't reach the doorbell."

Bea said...

I can see what you mean about your daughter's journey.


SaraS-P said...

The car wash woman was incredibly rude and clueless.

That's just one of those questions you shouldn't ask.

And "mixed" and "American" were used so inappropriately. Yes, male and female DNA "mixed" to create all of us. And, American, well...that's a whole essay right there. Did she think only lily white citizens were "American?"

My mom has long, straight, black hair. At my wedding, people asked if she was Native American. Nope, just a brunette, folks.

People are ignorant, and, unfortunately, your twins will get their taste of it in some form.

Michell said...

oh my God. That woman was an idiot. She really needs to learn when to shut her mouth and not say any more.