By Guest Contributor damali ayo
It was one of those rather nice plane rides where the passengers all felt like friends, particularly in our little corner in the back of the plane: I slept; the woman next to me knitted; the people in front of us chatted and got to know each other.
It was an all-around good time. As the plane touched down, two people in the seats behind me struck up a lively conversation like two friends who hadn’t seen each other since elementary school. My knitting neighbor and I exchanged a look as if to say, “Geez, these two are getting along so well, why didn’t they start talking several hours ago?”
We shrugged and got back to listening to them. The woman in the conversation had what sounded like a Spanish accent, and the man spoke working-class New York. Every so often the woman searched for a word in English. The two were both dog lovers, and the man pulled out a photograph of his dog to show to the woman. They both seemed so excited that I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
I craned my head a bit to see if I could catch a glimpse of either them or the dog photo, but no luck. The man was in the midst of explaining all the things that make his new puppy great a companion when the woman enthusiastically interrupted him. I heard the woman grasp for a word.
“What–uh, what–um–what race is your dog?” She asked.
There was an awkward silence.
“What…race?” He sounded distinctively uncomfortable. (After all she could see the dog’s color, she was looking at a photo of the dog.) How should he answer? Is a dog’s race equal to his breed? The color of his fur? The family that adopted him? My mind was reeling with the possibilities he must have been considering. He chose one.
“You mean, what breed?”
“Yes! that.” She affirmed, excited that he understood, but not seeming to perceive that this was an odd question.
“Uh, it’s a Pit Bull/German Shepard mix.” He replied awkwardly, but relieved. Their conversation continued as the woman cooed over the cute puppy photo.
When people talk about their pets, one of the first things they mention is the color. There are all kinds of elaborate and non-judgment inducing names for the colors of pets: tabby, smoke, calico, brindle, fawn, grizzle, merele, chinchilla, tortie, and of course any combination of the above.
It doesn’t stop there: in addition to the basic black, white, and brown that people come in, cats and dogs also come in blue, orange, lilac, pewter, apricot, cinnamon, chocolate and golden. It’s really quite a lively range of descriptors. People unapologetically choose their pets by their colors. “I really want a black lab.” We’ve all heard it.
We’re not as comfortable when it comes to people. A popular complaint about identifying people of color is this, “I don’t know what to call them. They keep changing what they want to be called, and if the I say the wrong thing, I’m going to offend someone, and I’ll be called a racist.” In an effort to curb this fear and potential offense people often modify racial descriptors with flattering adjectives to soften the blow of identifying race in the first place. People fear that pointing out race makes them racist. They forget to consider that it is their intention in pointing out the race that matters.
My gallerist did this just the other day. He said, “My daughter is getting a place with…(pause) one of her nicest, (pause) African American friends.” I’m sure he didn’t mention his daughter’s roommate’s race to everyone. He made a point of telling me this because I, like the roommate, am black. To cover up for the obvious “connecting two black people is fun” game, he added how nice this roommate is, as if this was the most important part of his sentence.
Alternatively people will insert the phrase “who just happens to be” in front of the racial identifier: “My daughter is moving in with a really nice woman who just happens to be African American.” This strikes me as odd. Did the roommate accidentally turn black? Now that’s a story. Tell me about that. How did they “just happen” to be this race?
Sometimes people start out wanting to say “I saw this black man” then something clicks in them that makes this feel awkward–perhaps looking at my brown skin. They pause, the letter “b” hangs on their lips, as they search their minds like a Jeopardy category titled Ways to describe black people that start with b. If they are afraid of black people they might say, “I saw this big black man.” Yikes. If they are trying to show how liberal and accepting they are of black people then it comes out, “I saw this beautiful black man.” Smile. Whew, that was a close one.
Imagine someone saying this, “I saw the most–um, uh–big–I mean, beautiful black dog the other day.” This clearly indicates that they are not a fan of black dogs and that this one must be an exception. It’s kind of like when people say, “I met the nicest Pit Bull.”
Yet, if you ask someone why they stumbled to find a positive adjective to place in front of a racial identifier, get ready for a fight. Their reaction will start with defensive outrage to cover embarrassment–and might even end with their accusing you of being racist yourself. Try it sometime, and see what happens.
Why is it that we describe pet colors and breeds so easily but when we talk about people we stumble, stutter, and prepare for battle? Is it because dogs never fought for their rights in our society? Is it because cats never asked to be called one thing or another? Is it because we choose their descriptors for them, and they have no say at all in the labels we assign them?
If you apply a biological approach, the color of pets and the race of people is pretty much determined by the same mechanism: genetics. So what makes race such a drastically different and difficult conversation among humans? We have to admit, finally, that race is not just a matter of genetics, it includes our historical interactions.
Facing a person’s race means facing the history you have with them and their group, not just facing a difference in “skin color” as people often try to oversimplify it. We carry our collective history with us everywhere, and the first reminder of that is our skin. It is our discomfort with and denial of our history that tensions around race invariably arises.
After the two dog lovers behind me discussed their dogs, they finally introduced themselves. As it turned out, they both had the same last name. No kidding, they had the same last name. The woman was delighted by this discovery. She said that she is from Spain and asked if his family was Spanish too.
“Yeah!” he said. “My mom’s from Puerto Rico, and my dad’s Cuban.”
Another awkward silence.
damali ayo is the author of Obamistan! Land without Racism: Your Guide to the New America (Lawrence Hill Books) and teaches “You Can Fix Racism” a ten-point program to improve and ease race relations, to schools and communities around the country.