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Social Studies

Girl For Sale

By Vincent Williams | Posted 1/7/2009

So a couple of days after Christmas, me and the family find ourselves at the Lenox China outlet looking for new pieces for our black Nativity scene (where Joseph looks like my old barber and Mary looks like Vanity circa 1985) and a 2008 ornament. What can I say? One of the things my wife and I have in common is that we were both raised by women who, even in their 20s, acted like old ladies so, yeah, we both have old lady taste. And nothing says "old lady" like Lenox. Sometimes I try to play the "ironic" card, but honestly I just like the china. I also keep cough drops and hard candy in my messenger bag.

Anyway, as you can imagine, it's nothing but old ladies in the whole store, and I strike up a conversation with one of them. She says, "Boy, there sure are some pretty pieces in here." I answer, "There sure are." She says, "And you can't beat the half-off prices." Instead of saying what I've been saying to my wife throughout our outlet sojourn about being vultures gulping down pieces of rotting meat from the decaying corpse of Bush America, I just say, "These are, indeed, good prices." Of course, the conversation shifts to my daughter and the nice lady says, "And isn't she a pretty little girl?" My daughter smiles and thanks her and then the old lady looks up at me and says, "But I bet I can't buy her for half price, can I?" And here we are: An old white lady is joking about purchasing my black daughter.

Appropriately enough, this reminds me of a conversation I've just had with my other favorite old person besides my mom--my dad. Since it's holiday time, that means we had to have our annual Driving Miss Daisy argument. I've always said the Oscar-winning picture is just revisionist propaganda which attempts to whitewash the brutal history of the segregated South. My dad, who comes from said segregated South, says that I should just enjoy the performances and stop overthinking it. In fact, more often than not, that's what he says when I get worked up over things. He always says you can drive yourself crazy obsessing over this stuff.

Now, I don't believe the lady meant anything malicious or racist. Even if I immediately thought about that scene in The Color Purple when the mayor's wife objectifies Sofia's children, I don't believe she was being insensitive. I believe that if my daughter looked like Dakota Fanning, she would have said the exact same thing. Hell, as far as creepiness goes, that's pretty tame, considering the amazingly inappropriate things people say about kids. "You're so cute, I'm could just eat you alive!" "I'm going to grab you and run away with you!" "When your parents aren't looking, I'm going to knock you out with chloroform, dye your hair in the bathroom, and leave the country with you in a suitcase!" Okay . . . that last one is made up, but the others are true. The point is, outside of a racial context, the statement was pretty benign.

But I can't take it out of that context because I can't stop being me, and, yeah, race informs my thoughts. It's sort of like when I would see parents with those leashes on their kids--which probably aren't called "leashes," but that's damn sure what they look like--and I've always known I'd never use that, because there's no way a black child should get used to being on a chain. So, yeah, I have this filter that I can't turn off, and even though, again, it was a perfectly innocent statement, I actually thought for a couple of seconds about what she meant--how did the comment work, should I say something, etc.--before I got to the conclusion that she was just an old lady trying clumsily to give a compliment. The bad thing about our interaction is the calculations that I found myself making.

Ultimately, I think we do have to be vigilant as a society about racialized language and implication just because we have to live together. It's a good thing that we all know that "Oriental" is what you use to describe a rug, not a person; we sit pretzel style, not Indian style; and you shouldn't call women "sweetie" to get their attention. Hell, when all of the books are written, I believe one of the major reasons that President-Elect Obama did so well is because the old "racial dog whistle" didn't work like it traditionally has. Code phrases like the pejorative use of "community organizer" and the strategic placement of his middle name fell flat because, after two decades of the type of calculation and attention that I paid to my fellow china purchaser, the vast majority of us saw through it. As much as I sometimes tire of the eternal parsing and dissecting of every interaction I have out in the world, when we all do it, it's for the greater good. But, sometimes, that greater good is achieved by just holding your tongue, which is what I ended up doing. Plus, we were all kindred spirits, and I wanted to ask her where I could get a nice bowl with a hard roll on the side.

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