Thursday, July 03, 2008

Black. . .but

Under the rules of apartheid white Afrikaners were to be totally set apart from all other races in every aspect of daily life. Blacks, therefore, could not work or travel in white areas without government approval. When Desmond Tutu was elected Archbishop of Cape Town he was offered a special dispensation. He could legally live in the archbishop's home in the white section of Cape Town as - and this was a legal term - an "honorary white".

Tutu refused. Instead of living legally as an honorary white person, he instead chose to live illegally as a black person, daring the South African authorities to do something about it.

While honorary whiteness is not a legally sanctioned status here in America, I know first hand that it still exists in many people's minds. Back in Durham I was talking to an old white man about how we felt we were called to be reconcilers. I was treading carefully and trying to invite him into our story because I knew he had a problem with black people. "Oh, Irie," he said, "she's not really black." I thought, "My man, I hope you never tell her that."

The statement is revealing. Black people like Irie simply could not exist in this man's world. She could not even have the dignity to be a "credit to her race." She had to be another race altogether.

But I'm not going to cast stones. I remember when I first started dating I would be talking to friends back home and telling them something like, "Well, I'm seeing this girl and she's black, but she's smart." Later on I noticed my mom doing it too. "I saw Billy's mom at the grocery store and I told her that you had met someone special and that she is black but she's very pretty."

Why the "but"?

Two things.

The first is a charitable, yet I think true, reading. My mom and I both knew what people were going to think and we wanted to have them hear us out. If I were to unpack the sentence we were saying, "She's black but hear me out because she's not what I know is already in your head."

The second reading is less charible, but no less true. Something visceral in us was saying, "She's black, but she's an exception."

We're learning to name that. To confess it and call it the demon that it is.

And I'm also learning to say, "My wife, Irie, she's black.

"She's black and. . ."