My mother loved to tell a story about a bath I took with a little girl I had asked to spend the night with me.

We were 4 or 5 at the time. This little girl — no one quite remembers her name— and I took cues from Mom.

“Don’t forget about your ears.”

“Make sure you wash your arms and legs.”

“Clean between your toes.”

A ring of dirty, soapy water clung to the inside of the tub. While we bathed, the little girl, who was white, checked me out. She noticed that no matter how many times I wiped the washcloth across my skin the color didn’t wash off.  For perhaps the first time, she had noticed how different we were. She was perplexed. So, in a way, she had to say it.

“I didn’t know you were that color all over.”

Her voice pitched high on those last two words, Mom told me, and the statement had all the sincerity of a child who didn’t understand the weight of her words.

Mom repeated the little girl’s words over and over again in her mind and then she laughed inside. I guess the little girl thought I was dirty, but that didn’t stop her from wanting to play with me.

Race is a social construct. All you have to do is talk to children or think about your own childhood to discover this truth.


14 thoughts to “Throwback Thursday

  • Dana

    Thanks for your great piece re Gabby’s hair.  (NPR Thursday August 2, 2012).  I have  enjoyed seeing her do her great work (and play) during the past few days.  Can’t wait for her individual performance tonight (delayed broadcast).  It has been pure pleasure to see her in her natural self – not just her hair, also her moves.   Reminds me of a friend (AAm) who visited Cuba and upon returning to the US she wrote a poem which she shared.  Her poem speaks to how the females looked so natural in their skin.  

    Doubless Gabby will get plenty of “photo opportunities”.  I  so hope she is not pushed to be other than her natural self.   She is enough.  Makes me wish I were a young one again. At my age and stage about all I hope to accomplish is “keeping my natural self” (altho at 70 I get all kinds of unwanted “coaching” to “do something with” my hair – “would  take years off my looks!”, “would not look as if I came from the 1800’s ( ; – ), etc.

    Glad you have a site.  I don’t ( ; – (   Your white “cousin”, Dana

    • Honeysmoke

      Aw, get a website. 

  • Djhardyson

    Thank you so much for reminding me that it is more than hair! I admit, as I watched eagerly on the edge on my chair, that I DID comment on young Gabby’s hair when she marched down the aisle with her team mates, asking why is her hair such a mess?  why did she leave with her hair like that? how come her hair isn’t pinned in a better pony tail than that? doesn’t she know she’s under a microscope? etc… but I soon forgot ALL that trivia B.S. when I, along with the rest of the world, was transfixed by her style, smile, agility, and grace. When Gabby took the stage and showed us, the African American community, and the world that she is a force to be reckoned with. She proved to everyone (who judged her, scolded her, and was just mad) that she was more than just her hair. To Gabby, she was an Olympian! Not a role model, not another young black girl assisting her teammates, not a fashion model with the world criticizing her every move, not the 1st black young lady to win “Over All” but an Olympian! And in the end Gabby won BIG! SHE was bigger than her hair style! I thank you for putting me in my place! I realized, upon reading your blog that I was judging her without even realizing it, and that I was ashamed, I didn’t realized I had done that until I read your blog. Once again, Thank you. You have made me realize that I had this ingrained in me without even noticing, the price of looking good, if not better than the persons around me. You Humble me. Thank You.

    • Honeysmoke

      No problem. Thanks for visiting Honeysmoke.

  • Paula

    That’s a sweet story. It reminds me of when I was 12 or 13, my friend Kecia and I were in gym class and I asked to use her comb. She said, “You don’t want to use my comb, I’ve got grease in my hair”. I thought she was using the word “grease” the way my mother used it when she wanted us to wash our greasy hair. I said I didn’t mind. She laughed at me and explained that the grease she was referring to was Ultra Sheen, a petroleum-based product that wouldn’t work on my hair type.

    Speaking of hair, I love what your wrote about Gabby Douglas’ hair. If you look at her team’s hair collectively; the ponytail and a million hair clips is not about style but function. I’d be concerned if any of them made their hair a priority while they’re in competition. These young women are amazing athletes who have sacrificed their childhoods to train for these Olympics. Let’s be proud of their efforts in these games and leave comments about their hair out of it.

    • Honeysmoke

      Nice story. As for Gabby’s hair, right on! 

  • Justin Barrett

    This was a beautiful post. I am a white male who grew up an army brat. Most of my friends were black throughout my childhood (no matter where we lived). We had similar interests and just seemed to get along. My mother loves to tell a story when I was about the same age as you in this post (4 or 5) when I first noticed I was getting darker because of a suntan and I had asked if I was going to keep getting darker until I was like Derek. The innocence of youth. I just assumed Derek had gotten tanned and stayed that way.

    I came to your blog via NPR (as many, I assume, will). Your piece on Gabby Douglas was poignant and important.
    I am now the loving adoptive father of an Ethiopian girl. She is three years old and is just now starting to notice the difference between herself and us. My wife and I fret over her hair, knowing how important it is (and how different it is to our own). Your piece on NPR really touched me.

    I’ll be adding your blog to my new feeder. Thanks and best.

    • Honeysmoke

      Thanks for the chuckle. I also am a military brat. Don’t fret over your daughter’s hair. There are plenty of good hair blogs out there, and there are more than a few white men — Google it! — who have learned how to do black hair. Good luck to you. 

      • Justin Barrett

        Thanks so much. Cool that you’re a military brat, too. It’s not an easy life for a child, but it can give them a deeper appreciation for all the different types of people.

        Thanks for the kind words regarding hair. I hope to be one those white men who learns how to do black hair. Your advice is probably the best advice for so much of parenting: don’t fret over it. It isn’t always easy, but it’s usually the most prudent thing to do! Thanks.

  • Wendy

    I think the racism (and the fear of appearing racist) generally comes from moments like this.  A child says something innocent that could be deemed incredibly racist.  But they’re not being racist.  They’re simply commenting on their perception of our differences.  Had your mother reacted differently, she might have instilled a sense of confusion and shame regarding the issue of race.

    And like when you said that race is a social construct, I don’t think it’s just an issue of race, but our differences in general.  Some differences, like hair and eye color, are hardly noticed or commented on, but others, like skin color and body size and gender and sexual orientation, somehow come to define entire groups of people.

    • Honeysmoke

      I agree. 

  • Hollyjes

    Wow. I love your blog! I came here

  • Hollyjes

    Whoops! Try again. Wow, I love your blog!! I came here after
    reading your piece on Gabby’s hair. Perfectly said! My family, which is white,
    grew up in Northern Minnesota where there is very little diversity. My brother,
    however, is friends with a neighbor who is black. One day, as a little boy, my
    brother started crying because he was afraid he was going to “burn black like”
    his friend. It’s a little scary for me to post this story here, I’m afraid of
    people getting offended, but your story and the story of one of your commenters
    has made me brave. I think we should start talking about these things. Little
    kids shouldn’t be shushed up when they ask these innocent questions, that gives
    them the wrong idea.

    • Honeysmoke

      Thanks for your comment. We’re friendly in these parts.

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