This morning, I had a talk with a neighbour in my office building about why she is leaving her job. As a black woman, she feels the presence of a glass ceiling and feels that within that company she can never achieve her potential.
As white people, do we dismiss these stories as isolated incidents? Do we discount the cumulative effects that racism has on people of colour? We do not see the daily slights that people of colour live with, and then we do not understand when someone blows up at that “final straw.”
As a white parent of two black sons, I have a window into this world—a window that includes the fact that they are different shades of black. This is one story:
On a cold winter day recently, we were trapped in the house. Our five-year-old child was sick with a fever and our three-year-old son, James, and I needed to get out of the house. So I bundled him up and we went to the zoo.
We looked at the birds and then a zookeeper announced that children were needed to help feed the animals. We joined a group of children with parents standing back. The zookeeper did not have enough bowls of food for everyone so she asked siblings and friends to pair up. James ended up at the front, waiting patiently. The young woman started passing out the bowls of food. I saw her come to James, look at him, and then go on to the child next to him to give her a bowl of food. I thought it was strange, but I waited, thinking [as a white person] there must be a logical reason for what she did. She passed bowls to pairs of kids and individual kids. She passed a bowl right over James’s head to a boy behind him. James was neither the youngest nor the oldest. When she ran out of food bowls, she passed out lettuce to the remaining kids. James was still front and center, but apparently invisible to this zookeeper. Another father had to point out that James still did not have something for the animals. At this point I was too upset to say anything, and not prepared to bring attention to this in front of my son. In addition, there was another parent who felt he could move James out of the way for his two girls. At first, when I saw him touching James’s head, I thought, “Here we go, someone feeling his hair,” but he was actually trying to move James out of his way. When we moved to another cage, the same man actually shut him out of the circle of adults entirely. I filled out a comment card about the zookeeper and talked to two zoo managers the next day. They could not offer any explanation for the unequal treatment by the zookeeper. I was told the zookeeper cried when she read the card.
I do not know if she was conscious of what she did. I am told she is thirty years old, trained in Africa and is very sensitive to different cultures. I know the zoo is doing outreach to diversify its audience. Yet this is what happened to a three-year-old black child in 2003.
It causes me to wonder how will James feel in 20 years, when he is out of college and interviewing for jobs? How will he perform in 30 years when he is tired of people not seeing him as an individual? Or how will he do in high school when he is passed over, or ignored by the people in charge? How will he feel after a lifetime of different treatment because of his level of pigmentation? As parents, we were prepared to address race with our children when the kids were a little older. I am not prepared to explain to my three-year-old that his beautiful brown skin gives him a second-class life experience.
by Christopher A. McCaffrey-Boss
Reprinted with kind permission of the author.