When I lived in New York City, I shared an apartment for some time with a fun couple, Melanie and Hendrik. Mel was Canadian, Hendrik was Dutch. I always admired Melanie for her artistic talent, her practical way of approaching life’s challenges, and for the fact that she always treated everyone the same. Mel never put on any airs, whether she was talking to a pseudo-celebrity artist, one of Hendrik’s co-workers, (a globally diverse team of United Nations tour guides), or a cashier at the corner Korean Deli.
Hendrik, a former performance artist clown (quick to say not of the Ringling Brothers variety), was free-spirited, and extremely creative. He often challenged my shyness by his fearless, interactive daily live “performances” at home, like dancing flamboyantly around the apartment, and making me join in. They both embraced diversity, and crossed color lines and cultures effortlessly—perhaps a European/Canadian perspective made that more natural.
Another endearing quality of Hendrik’s was his translation of certain words and phrases from Dutch to English. When I met Hendrik, he was pretty much fluent in English, and spoke German, some French and Spanish, too. But, some things just don’t always translate. Mittens were called “hand shoes,” and when Hendrik wanted to say something was better than something else, he’d say, “…that $3 dollar blue cheese is better as that $12 dollar blue.”
I recalled that better as phrase one night at the dinner table with my, then eight year-old daughter, Darla. We had watched some of the BET (Black Entertainment Television) awards the night before and Darla apparently had something on her mind.
“Mommy, why are black people so special? It’s not fair, they win a lot of awards, are on TV a lot, are good at a lot of things…,” Darla asked.
I thought, this is one of those teachable moments. I can and should say something about race, about paying tribute to celebrated African-Americans. I should say something about how black voices so often DON’T get noticed by mainstream white society or the media. I should say something about how all races and ethnicities have special, unique, talented people, famous and not famous, that contribute to society in positive ways. I should say how all of us, as individuals in this world, have something special to offer, something that is uniquely ours, that no other person in the universe possesses.
But, then my mind flashed to Hendrik and I imagined myself blurting out, “Well, Darla, that’s because black people are better as us.”
In that moment, I thought, do I take the high road, or, take the humorous, evasive way out? I blame my Dad for almost always using humor to deflect dealing with serious matters head on. While I still consider his humor a gift he gave to our family throughout the years, perhaps it was not always the way to go.
Which way should I go? I am, after all, my father’s daughter.
“I know, Darla. Black people are really special, aren’t they?” I said.
And, then I rose to the occasion, and became teachable moment, Mom. And I shared with Darla all the should’s I just went through above.
I considered myself better as a lot of other Moms that night, or at least just as good.