Celebrating differences…

“He’s that black kid, isn’t he?”

My mouth snapped shut. I looked at my Mom and had no idea what to say. He was my friend. He swore to me that the spiders in his front garden sang to him every morning as the sun rose. My sister and I mostly didn’t believe him but one morning we got up really early and crept into his yard just to see. Maybe we showed up too early. Maybe the spiders were still sleeping.

“He has a yellow coat,” I insisted stubbornly. Mine was a quiet stubborn; I didn’t throw flashy tantrums, I simply did not budge. Yes, he was black but no one pointed me out as the white kid. I couldn’t understand why he was known as “the black kid” even above his own name. That didn’t seem right.

Mom went out and took a look, returning a few moments later.

“Yes, he’s the black kid. Apparently Michelle just doesn’t notice colour.”

The last was said with a mixture of exasperation and pride. Was it a good thing not to notice colour? To ignore differences? I wasn’t sure. This was something I struggled with for years.

I had a friend in high school. We weren’t close, despite knowing each other for years, we simply walked to school together in the morning and chatted if we shared a class. Our drama teacher was late one day and a large number of classmates decided to share jokes. This was the mid 1980’s and the popular jokes at the time were the “Paki jokes”.

I hated those jokes. They made me feel dirty just listening to them; they made me want to vomit them right back out again. I was the only one in my family who felt like that.

“Dad! I learned a new joke in school today,” my sister announced at the dinner table the night before. “What do you do if you see a Paki drowning? Throw him his wife and kids.”

Everyone laughed while my stomach twisted.

“I’ve got one too,” my Dad replied. “What do you do if you think you’ve run over a Paki? Back up to make sure.”

Once again the whole family laughed hysterically, like these were the funniest jokes ever. I felt like throwing up or crying… or possibly both.

“I’m not hungry,” I murmured. “May I be excused?”

My Mom sighed. “Michelle, don’t be so sensitive.”

“Yeah Michelle, they’re just jokes. They don’t hurt anyone,” my youngest sister added, parroting phrases from previous conversations.

My Mom gave a gesture granting me permission to leave and, as I pushed back my chair, my sister (the one who told the joke) rolled her eyes. “Well, we all know Michelle has no sense of humour.”

Everyone nodded agreement. The so-called jokes continued before I’d even left the room. Once again I headed upstairs in tears. Were they right? I didn’t think I had no sense of humour, although I’d been told that multiple times. I enjoyed jokes as long as they didn’t make fun of anyone but those were generally aimed at children. Maybe those didn’t count. And maybe my family was right. If I was the only one being offended then I was the only one being hurt, which made it my problem. I listened to my family laugh downstairs and felt incredibly alone.

Now I was in class and listening to those jokes again. I lurked at the back, not wanting to be mocked for being oversensitive and ruining everyone’s fun but not wanting to listen either. Then I noticed my friend leaving the group. He went to the other side of the room. I quickly followed.

We slipped in between an assortment of room dividers then my friend turned. I was surprised to see tears in his eyes.

“I hate those jokes,” he hissed. He swiped the backs of his hands across his face.

“I hate them too,” I said and he nodded.

“I was born in India, right on the border between India and Pakistan. If I was born just a few miles further then I’d be from Pakistan and those jokes would be about me. Would they really find it funny if I died?”

“I don’t find them funny,” I replied. I patted his shoulder then we stood in silence, surrounded by grey dividers, until the teacher arrived and broke up the jokes.

It was a weird moment. I had proof standing right in front of me that I was right, those horrible jokes did hurt people. The flip side was being right meant people were being hurt. Talk about a hollow victory.

I could keep tossing out examples but that would bring my word count up to a billion and nobody’s got time for that. Even I can’t procrastinate on my real writing for that long. But each experience brought about a little bit of change.

Over the years I’ve realized that we’re all like stained glass windows, each little piece connecting together to form a picture. You can’t ignore parts of someone and still see who they are; you can’t focus on one or two parts and see their entire picture; and if you spend all your time looking for how their glass is different from yours, not only will you never find their similarities but you’ll miss their beauty.

“Michelle? Which outfit do you think looks better?” A friend of mine held up two dresses. She was heading out somewhere and wanted to look good.

I shrugged. “They both should look good,” I pointed out.

“A friend of mine said she likes this one better because it makes me look white.”

“That would be an interesting trick,” I said dryly and she laughed.

“What do you think of this one?” she asked, as she held the other dress up.

I looked at her appraisingly. “It’s a good colour on you. It brings out highlights in your hair and face.”

She nodded. “I like it too,” she agreed. “My other friend didn’t like it, she said it makes me look black.”

“And this would be a problem because…” I let my voice trail off as I stared at her in bewilderment.

“You’re right,” she replied, grinning, “It’s not a problem.”

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