It wasn't always like this. Growing up I went to a diverse high school and didn't think much about race. People often asked my background and I proudly rattled off the combination: russian-german- Mennonite-scottish-guyanese. With Mennonite being the important one, the one that filled our lives with zwiebach, hymns and platz. Scotland and British Guyana were strange places on a map, empty of meaning.
One day when I was in university, my sister Nicole and I were laughing about our status as international mutts and settled into a discussion about our lack of knowledge of Guyanese culture. My mother had lost her mom to breast cancer when I was a toddler and our Christmas gatherings were spent with Great-Aunt Shantee and Great-Uncle Julian. Great-Aunt Shantee was full of laughter and hugs, but I always felt a little confused by this branch of the family tree. Why did everyone look so different from us?
I was used to feeling out of place among my blonde, blue-eyed Mennonite cousins, but we didn't seem to fit in here either among these dark faces. At Oma and Opa's house we had quiet tradition to pull us together, but at Great-Aunt Shantee's everything was unfamiliar: the songs, the food, the lilting accents. We sat shyly on the sofa, wishing we were participants instead of spectators in this loud, vivacious family.
Back at home, Nicole asked our mother why she never talked about our Guyanese background. "We don't know anything about it," Nicole complained. "People ask us where we're from and we don't know what to say." A flat, empty look came over my mother's face. "I don't know what you're talking about," she said irritably. "Now go wash your hands. It's time for supper." Nicole and I walked away in disgust. Why was she so weird about this?
Several years later, my parents' small group from church was hosting an engagement party for me and my soon-to-be husband. All of my parents' closest friends were there, including Barb and Jim, a tall, stocky couple with florid faces and hearty laughs. They had been part of my parents' circle for decades, raised their kids together. I was picking up a nanaimo bar when I heard Jim's laugh boom out as he regaled the group with some story about his recent trip to the States. And then I heard the word. That vicious, snarling word I had always associated with the KKK and "the South," not my peaceful, multi-cultural Canada.
I dropped the nanaimo bar and turned around. There was a little pause as the word sank through the air; then the conversation flowed on, blithely skipping around the rock in its path. I was so shocked I wondered if I had even heard it. As I looked around the room, my eyes fell on my mother, sitting quietly in an armchair beside Jim, staring down at her interlocked fingers in her lap, the side lamp light gleaming against her pale cheek and straightened black hair. I never asked her about Guyana again.
There have been many times since that day when I have been at a work, family or social gathering and been horrified at the blatantly bigoted things people felt free to say. Yet I never spoke up. It seemed so inappropriate.
One day in a fit of passive-aggressive self-righteousness, I posted the following status on The Fake Book:
"Just because I'm not black or gay doesn't mean I'm not offended by your slurs. Keep your hate to yourselves."
Boy, people liked that. There were thumbs popping up all over the place. Except for one good friend, who sent me a private message a few days later asking if I was OK. "Why?" I asked. "You're posting strange messages on Facebook," she messaged back.
There are some things you just can't say to a friend:
"Yes, those jeans do make you look fat."
"Actually, it was your kid's fault."
"We don't visit you anymore because your husband is a racist."
I wondered if our friendship could withstand such an honest conversation.
But I never found out.
* * * * *
For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, Katri gave me this prompt: But I never found out. I gave kgwaite this prompt: He was the best kind of coward.