This summer my family will be taking a long-anticipated trip to Tanzania. Even for an inveterate list-maker such as myself, the amount of planning involved for this trip has been quite daunting. There have been the passports, the visas, the immunizations–not to mention all of the special (read: expensive) gear to purchase– times four. Then there has been the mental planning: we have piles of books all over the house about every aspect of life in Tanzania–the people, the politics, the wildlife, the beach scene–we even have a beginner’s guide to Swahili installed on our computer (not that it has done me any good–after six months I can still only say “yes” and “no”–and sometimes I even manage to mess those up).
In fact, I’ve been planning so much about this trip for so long now that even when the only variables left are the ones upon which I have absolutely no control (the weather, currency fluctuations, nearby political upheavals), I feel as if I must still exercise whatever last vestige of controlling powers I have left. And so, of course, I turn to my children.
“Clementine!” I snap when my daughter rejects yet another item of food at dinnertime (this time there was “too much cheese” on her macaroni and cheese), “You know that in Africa, there won’t be a lot of choices, so you’ll have to try new…” Blahblahblah goes the look on her face–obviously she’s heard this one a few hundred times before. So I turn to Clyde:
“Clyde–you know, in Africa, things will be different. The animals will be different, the plants will be different, (blahblahblah goes his face, too) the people will be different–
That gets his attention. “The people? How?”
“Well,” I say, “for one thing, almost everybody will be Black”–
”What?” says Clyde, confused. “Black people? I don’t want to see Black people; I’m scared of Black people!”
Yikes–where did that come from? This certainly puts a new spin on things:“The Cracker Family Goes to Africa.”
In an attempt to fix the problem I have somehow just created I immediately launch into a listing of every African American we know, making sure to highlight all of their “non-scary” attributes. (Although, given the paucity of the resulting list of people, I am beginning to think that maybe we do deserve the “Cracker Family” moniker after all). Not that it matters–Clyde dismisses my pitiful little list out of hand: “But Mommy, they’re not black–they’re brown. Like Daddy.”
Okay, now I’m the one who’s confused. Daddy’s brown? Then what color am I?
“Yellow.” (I really need to get away from the computer screen more.) As it turns out, census forms in Clyde’s world would be simple–you’re either brown, or you’re pink. (Disturbingly, I am the only fluorescent mole rat in his life–and therefore the only “yellow peril”). Suddenly it all makes sense: with a classification system like that, a truly black person would be quite frightening; I realize that it’s not Black people that Clyde is scared of–it’s black people. Not that this knowledge does me any good–even if I follow him around and explain to everyone we meet that “He’s saying black with a little ‘b’–a little ‘b,’” this will not change the fact that I am about to travel to Africa with a child who has no problem loudly and publicly declaring “I don’t like black people.”
I wonder if it’s too late to change our trip to Idaho? Of course, that would take some planning, too. And I’d probably still end up saying something stupid like “there’ll be a lot of White people.” Which means I’d still have to follow him around, only this time I’d be explaining, “He’s saying white with a little “w”–a little “w.”