We used to live in Vermont, a state that is beautiful, cold, progressive, and very white. Even with the forever winters and the dark-at-4 p.m. evenings, we loved living in the Green Mountain State. Still, the lack of diversity could be challenging at times. My husband and I used to enjoy taking day trips around the state, and when we travelled outside of the relatively diverse city of Burlington, I’d often find myself to be the only person of color in the room.
Once, we found ourselves in a little restaurant near some scenic route. We were waiting in line to be seated when a white woman came up to us. Well, she came up to me. She smiled and swayed gently. Though I didn’t recognize her, I smiled back anyway.
“I just wanted you to know,” she said, leaning in close to me, “when I was a little girl, I had this beautiful Black doll.” She pulled back a little and kept smiling at me as though we were sharing a memory together. “I just loved that doll.”
Eventually, the woman sauntered away good spiritedly while I stood in line wondering what in the world had just happened. Did a stranger really just approach me, the only Black person for miles around, and tell me about her Black childhood doll? How long had she been waiting to tell a Black person about this doll? Had I stepped into an alternate universe where I was supposed to care about random ladies and their ethnic baby dolls? Thank goodness my husband was there, too; otherwise, I might have questioned my sanity, my memory, or both.
When I retell the story, I always say, “Maybe she was intoxicated.” It would explain the audacity of such oddness. But in my more charitable moments, I can actually commiserate with the woman. Maybe, I say to myself, she just wanted me to know she liked Black people. Maybe she wanted me to know she wasn’t close minded. By singling me out, maybe she thought (quite ironically) that she was welcoming me by recounting her childhood openness to diverse toys.
I realized I have the same tendency when I meet someone from another culture with which I am even passingly familiar. When I meet someone from Puerto Rico, I have to stop myself from blurting out, “I love tostones!” When I meet someone from Germany, I immediately showcase the little German I remember from a semester-long class I took in college, saying “Na wie geht’s?” and waiting expectantly for praise. When I meet someone from Colombia, I restrain myself from singing lyrics from Juanes or Carlos Vives or circa-1990s Shakira. See! I’m doing it now – I’m practically shouting, Look at me! I am cultured! I know things! I’m progressive! I’m welcoming!
Probably one of the worst cases was when I “discovered” Indian cinematic music in college. I had seen a dance at our college’s annual South Asian cultural show choreographed to “Jub Dil Mile” from the movie Yaadein. I became obsessed with the song, which is exceedingly catchy. An Indian American friend was so kind as to explain where the song was from so I could illegally download it and listen to it all the time (this was the early 2000s; remember, there was no Spotify then). A few months later, I was driving with another Indian American friend. I asked whether she spoke Hindi. I don’t even remember her answer because I was too busy saying, “The only Hindi I know is mili milii mili mili dil mile, kili kilii kilili, jub dil mile, dub dul mile…” As she sat in silence, it dawned on me that I was using her to make myself seem worldly. I had boiled down an entire culture into a “fun fact” that was really only fun for me to share, and I had othered my friend in one of the most awkward ways possible. I felt pretty gross.
So, I try to have patience with white people who want to talk to me about Kendrick Lamar, Ta-Nehesi Coates, or (sigh), their Black dolls from childhood. That doesn’t mean I’m willing to be used as a pawn in someone else’s diversity chessboard. I have no qualms about exiting myself from conversations in which I feel othered or tokenized; like my friend in college, I’ve learned to not let other people use me to burnish their cultural bona fides.
I’m also learning to not use other people to burnish my own. When I feel like blurting something out, I try to pause and go through a short mental checklist:
- Is what I’m about to say relevant to the current conversation?
- Are my words orchestrated to make me seem more cultured or designed to help someone feel more welcome?
- By speaking the words, will I make the person I’m talking to actually feel welcome or will I likely make them feel othered?
- Do I know the person I’m talking to well enough to say what I’m saying or am I assuming a closeness that I haven’t yet earned?
- Am I making assumptions based on stereotypes of a particular group?
Fair warning: This list is not a fool-proof plan to “getting it right.” I’m still often tempted to pounce on every phrase to show how cultured and progressive I think I am. But I’m learning. After taking myself through my checklist, I find that I can actually relax a little, learn more about the person I’m talking to, and be a better communicator and friend. Most of all, I’m learning that some of the best conversations occur when I allow myself to be quiet and listen.