Deal or no deal?

Someone I met recently shared some potentially deal-breaking information with me. The kind of information that makes you think you jumped in too fast. It was personal, but necessary, information. This made me realize how much I judge, shape an opinion, decide the worthiness of someone,  and how much of it is based on appearances.

In this case: my opinion was very high because this man is always very well-dressed,  mild-mannered, eloquent, and impossibly polite by today’s standards. It’s as if he just stepped down from a Victorian-era hansom with top hat and walking stick in hand. I mean this in the most complimentary way. He always appears to be the epitome of the true gentle man.

Then, because we are considering working on a project together, we began talking via e-mail. There came a turning point, when he had to bare a small part of his soul, something only those who need to know know,  in order for me to gauge whether I could take on the project.  I didn’t see it coming. I’ll admit I had to take a deep breath and process.  I was thankful this happened virtually rather than face-to-face because my expression may have betrayed my feelings.

The man he is today is the result of a painful process involving grievous mistakes and inescapable consequences. There’s probably a lot more that I don’t know — but might if I sign on to this one. So, what now? Walk away? Proceed with caution but draw clear boundaries? Forge ahead without prejudice?

Would I have been less shocked if he was a slovenly, ill-mannered sort of person? Why did appearances play so heavily in this matter? How well do we know anyone in our lives?

This got me thinking about my life and how I seem to others. If you don’t know my back story, you could come up with any number of conclusions about me. I’ve heard them all. I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences. I could go to the same store dressed two different  ways and receive very different treatment. If I go in a skirt, makeup applied and hair styled, I get attention. If I go in paint-splattered pants, bare-faced, hair twisted in a clip, I’m ignored. I’m treated one way when I’m with my children at the park, quite another when I’m at a concert venue in high heels. Is this fair? Is this right? I don’t know but it’s the way of things.

Recently I gave up trying to be friends with someone. I thought we clicked, that we would be fast friends. At first I think we were, then something changed. I don’t know what I did; I can only assume I committed a deal breaker. Slowly it occurred to me that she was dumping me.

She started saying things like: I thought you hated (insert name of my favorite band/food/wine/restaurant.) so I didn’t ask/invite you.  She started recalling details about me that were not my story: that I had carpal tunnel syndrome, that I was a homebody who never liked to go out, that I contradicted myself.

It hit me then: She didn’t know me at all and really didn’t want to. She just reached a hand into the junk drawer of her brain and pulled out scraps to form her idea of me. She had already made up her mind.

Deal breaker.


Color me confused

Anyone up for a game of "Goodfellas?"

Somewhere past the pink and purple castle, just around the bend from the horse barn, a stretch limousine stuffed to the doors with Fisher Price Little People rounds a corner on two wheels. All the passengers roll and tumble around on the plastic seats. Except one doll. The brown-faced, afro-haired woman doll in a shocking pink dress stuffed in the trunk of the limousine. She tumbles onto the pink rag rug. The pink party car speeds down the hallway toward the staircase, oblivious of its missing passenger.

Girl from the East : (picking up the doll and holding it at eye level): I don’t like this doll, momma.
MZ: Why?
Girl from the East: Because her face is brown and I don’t like brown faces.
MZ: (Stunned into silence for a moment) What? Why?
Girl from the East: I just don’t.
MZ: But you have friends who have brown faces. You like them, don’t you?
Girl from the East: Uh-huh. I just don’t like the doll’s black hair.
MZ: But you have black hair. You like your black hair, right?
Girl from the East: Uh-huh.
MZ: So, if you have friends with brown faces and you have black hair, why don’t you like this doll? She’s wearing a pink dress.You love pink. (At this point I detect a shrill note in my voice, even though I am trying to regulate the volume.)
Girl from the East: I just don’t like the shape of her hair.
MZ: (Naming two girls she plays with) have hair in this shape and you like them, right?
Girl from the East: (Names the two girls) are my friends.
MZ: Yes. They are your friends. That means you like them. They have brown faces. They have that shape of hair.
Girl from the East: (picks up the doll again and stuffs it back into the trunk.) Well, I just don’t like this doll.
MZ: *Sigh*

Feeling I’ve gone too far, probed too deeply, I end the conversation. But, I don’t let it go. Perhaps Girl from the East is merely telling me she does not like the color brown in general and particularly doesn’t like it when it’s on her dolls. Perhaps she doesn’t like the molded plastic afro design, which resembles a helmet more than a hairstyle. But deep inside me, a cold knot twists as I fear the seeds of racism and prejudice are germinating. What is feeding this? All this time I’ve worried about how others might react to her skin tone or eye shape and here she is making her own judgments.

Orwell visits the play room: All Little People are created equal. But some Little People are more equal than others.

I watched this show on  CNN last week about a study on children and racism.  I’m sure this is why her simple comment sounded alarm bells inside my head. The study had kids looking at cartoon drawings of children with faces in every shade, from the darkest of brown to the palest of white.  Children were asked specific questions and asked to point to the cartoon characters to identify which one was the smartest, the dumbest, the good one, the bad one and so on. Can you guess the outcomes? The message seemed to be that parental influence and media feed these beliefs.

We are not that kind of home. We are not that kind of family. We have friends of all colors and stripes. We live in a community that embraces diversity. Heck, we are a diverse family ourselves. Girl from the East does not watch network or cable programmed TV. She watches DVDs of PBS and Nickelodeon shows such as “Dora,” where skin shades are varied from one character to the next. She watches “Yo Gabba Gabba” where faces are green and pink and one-eyed and pimply like cucumbers.

I have no answers. While my heart hurts that she said this so innocently, I also realize that I may be running her simple judgments about colors and textures through my complicated adult filters. So far, both of my girls have friends of all backgrounds and colors and have never exhibited racist speech or behavior. Sure, they’ve made observations and asked questions. We always teach that if we must judge at all, judge a person on his or her character. Ah, but the world is a complicated, dark and fuzzy place.

Time will tell more about this story.

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