Years ago, the tectonic plates of my soul shifted.
That’s actually how I experienced it. I felt like I had a fault line running from up above me to my right, diagonally down to my left. The bottom plate slid upward and the top one down. I have not been the same since, and I want to tell you why.
It was October, 2006, and I was at my in-laws’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration. Now, you know that Kyle, my husband, is black. And I thought that, by that time, I understood race relations and what my in-laws must have dealt with when they were growing up. After all, I’d been the only white person at their church every time I’d gone. At Kyle’s cousin’s wedding, I was one of only five white people there. I’m the only white person to ever stay at my in-laws’ house.
By the time I got to the hall where the celebration was being held, I knew three things. One, I was dressed wrong; two, I was in rural southern Virginia among a great many older African-Americans who remembered Jim Crow; and three, I was the only white person there.
To understand what I mean by being dressed wrong, you have to understand some things about Seattle. People dress casually here. You get looked at funny if you really dress up to go to the theater. When a longtime friend of my family’s died, people wore jeans to the memorial service; two of his daughters even wore jeans! And while Seattleites do wear nice clothes – sometimes – we also wear a lot of fleece.
When I packed for this trip to Virginia, I’d brought an outfit that I could easily wear to a similar event in Seattle: a brown-and-blue patterned wrap-around silk skirt, a nice-ish black top, and black shoes.
But as we were all getting dressed at my in-laws’ house, I noticed something. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law were wearing tailored white dresses, white hose, white shoes, and gold jewelry. The men were wearing dark suits, with gold-colored ties and pocket handkerchiefs. Nicole, my sister-in-law, had brought a gold-colored tie and pocket handkerchief for Kyle.
I hurried to the mall and bought a nicer black top, and borrowed a nice black shawl from my mother-in-law. Now I wonder why I didn’t just buy a white dress, but I didn’t think of it. Maybe because I would have had to find white shoes and hose, too. And gold jewelry.
When we got to the hall, I felt even more underdressed, seeing my in-laws’ friends arriving, elegantly dressed. Kyle’s aunt, my mother-in-law’s sister, was wearing white. Nicole’s daughter Vanessa, just four years old, was wearing white. I was the only woman in the family not wearing white.
The celebration was at a hall in rural Virginia. My in-laws live in a small town, Danville, but the hall was out in the middle of nowhere.
I remembered something my mother-in-law had told me, after the first time I went to their church. That was when Kyle and I were dating, and we went to Virginia so I could meet his family. After the service I went up to the pastor to tell him how much I enjoyed the sermon. Now, that might be a white-person thing to do, or a staid, Protestant thing to do, but the important thing is that afterwards, when I told this to my (now) mother-in-law, she mentioned that their previous pastor, an elderly man, would not have been happy to see me there. That he wouldn’t have said anything, but he wouldn’t have been happy.
So imagine me, multiplying that pastor’s discomfort with me at the church, and imagining that the guests at the celebration weren’t happy that I was there. Did they see me as a visible reminder of the indignities and horrors of Jim Crow? Did they see in me an impediment to being at ease, able to be fully themselves in a place free of the white gaze?
I was, as we used to say when I was young, freaking myself out.
I felt even more uncomfortable and conspicuous during the presentation of the children and grandchildren. If you’re like me, you have no idea what this is. At the start of the evening, my in-laws’ children, in birth order, with any spouses and children, walked from the back of the hall, through the hall, among all of the guests, up the stairs to the stage, to a seat at one of the tables there.
Nicole was at the microphone on the stage, introducing us.
First, my brother-in-law, “Their eldest son, Rod.” Rod walked confidently through the gathering and up onto the stage.
The last to go was my sister-in-law’s “husband Don, and their children Andrew and Vanessa.”
But between them, there was “Kyle and his wife, Louise.” There I was, bracketed by family who knew how to dress for an occasion like this.
My tectonic plates shifted in the buffet line. As I held out my plate for chicken, and deep-fried okra, and green beans cooked with bacon, I caught the eye of one of the servers. And immediately I felt I had found my home. Because she was white. I wasn’t the only white person there. She understood me. She was my friend, my lifeline. We connected just with looking at each other, making eye contact.
But she was a server. And I was a guest.
Who should I identify with?
And in that moment, I got a glimpse of the divided loyalties that people of color feel in this country. All the time. Every day of their lives.