A Black Person IRL
As I brought back another tray of dishes, one of the cooks asked me where I grew up. I answered, somewhat embarrassed, that I grew up in a suburb outside of Buffalo. Following the initial teasing and laughter emerged a question: “so how old were you the first time you saw a black person in real life?” from one of the dishwashers, (Let’s call him Danny) Danny, a black man in his late twenties. I was shocked, nearly offended. As we were all chatting in jest, I’m sure that I laughed, maybe even made some kind of comment, and we all laughed. But as with many things that are oddly funny, they’re based in a sad truth. How old was I when I first recalled seeing a black person in real life? I traced it back and I was horrified.
In our elementary school we had an adorable reading program in place called “Fourth Grade Buddies.” For every kindergarten class there was a partnered fourth grade class that would come in once a week to help the kindergartners learn to read. I remember as a kindergartner how exciting it was to have the fourth graders come in and pick one of us to be their buddy. Your buddy could make or break you--they’d be teaching you how to read for a whole year. That’s some serious bonding and quite the high stakes situation. Despite all that, I did not end up finding my fourth grade buddy particularly memorable… What I did find memorable was my own kindergarten buddy. Ah, fourth grade, what a time to be alive. That was the year I dissected an Owl Pellet, learned about the Wright Brothers, and had my first ever crush on a boy. It was also the year I got to pick my own kindergarten buddy. I’d waited four years for the chance to be on the mentor side of the buddy system, and I was ready. We walked into the kindergarten classroom and stared down our former selves. (In retrospect, the system through which buddies were chosen is kind of an odd one. It was as simple as lining up the kindergarteners and having the fourth graders just walk up and choose anybody.) I saw my buddy in an instant, she had cool braids and barrettes in her hair, unlike any I’d ever seen; she had a smart face and kind eyes, I knew in that moment that she would be my buddy. Through the elaborate selection system, destiny was completed, (lets call her Marcy) Marcy was indeed my buddy.
In my ten-year-old child mind I noticed nothing about Marcy that was different from me beside her being four years younger than I was, about a foot shorter than me, and, incidentally, a much better reader (my dyslexic life is a story for another time). It wasn’t until her parents came to visit the class that I realized something else. Marcy’s father walked in, a tall, angry-looking white dude with scruffy hair; her mother followed right behind him, a noticeably dark-skinned woman with a sparkly shirt and memorably cool, silver jewelry. Marcy was black. And I hadn’t noticed.
The mind is an odd thing. And the minds of children are extremely odd things. We talk about colorism--Marcy’s skin was much lighter than her mother's, though of course, retrospectively, obviously darker than mine--how is it that I didn’t realize she was black? It just didn’t occur to me. And my best guess would be related to the whole reason for me telling this story, the fact that I hadn’t ever seen any kind of black person in real life until I was ten years old. Ten. Ten years old. An entire decade of whiteness that was so normal, it took some serious shades in the opposite direction to open my eyes to what was right in front of me.
I don’t feel good about having this be my experience, but I know that it’s important to talk about it. I was twenty years old when Danny asked me in a joking way how old I was when I first saw a black person in real life. And when I realized what the truth of my experience was and I really thought about it, Danny knew the answer before I did. That year and the three years to follow it, I lived in the city of Buffalo and attended a state college there--an experience I’m so grateful for. Even before this question was asked of me, I recall walking onto campus for the first time and noticing all the black kids everywhere. It didn’t mean anything to me at that moment, I didn't really think about it, I just noticed.
After Danny’s question, I took a long look at my experiences up until that point. Aside from Marcy, I didn’t have a black friend until I was seventeen, and when I thought about my high school, there were two hundred forty five students in my graduating class and I couldn’t think of more than five kids who were black. When I would think of my neighbors, my family members, my sibling’s friends, my parent’s friends, no one was black. Bunch of lilywhites. Even turning on the TV my world was white--it all seemed so normal, until it wasn’t. The more I thought about it, the more it disturbed me, and the more it disturbed me the more I thought about it. Why is it like this?
There are, I’m sure, many, many factors which have contributed to how modern day communities come about in this country, but I’m not at liberty to state all these factors as I’m not wholly aware of them...though they undoubtedly include: discrimination, a cyclical problem with poverty and education in certain communities, institutionalized racism, fear, birds of a feather kind of thing, fear again, and God knows what else. What I can say is that my experience makes me think about people who’ve gone longer than 10 years before they’ve met a black person, maybe they’ve never even met anyone who wasn’t of the same race as them. And on top of that, you can trace back generations of that kind of thing mixed in with unabashed, outward and open racism in this country. And that all sounds like a pretty scary thing.
It makes me think of of those segments you see on Hate Thy Neighbor (Viceland) and The United Shades of America (CNN), where Jamali Maddix or W. Kamau Bell speak with Alt-Right folks who hate black people, who also appear to have had little to no exposure to anyone who’s not the same race as them. Something as simple as a lack of exposure can be demonstrative to cross cultural interaction and although those might qualify as extreme examples, they can be really important to observe. It takes it back to a very basic human thing, that being the fear of the unknown. If you’ve never had a conversation with someone whose skin color and cultural background is different from yours, don’t you think it’d be more likely you’d find it challenging? Especially if you’ve evolved wholly into adulthood lacking such exposure?
We live in a time that is extremely divisive and there are so many causes of hate. I think that a lack of exposure may be a contributing factor. It’s, of course, much, much more complicated than just that. But when we see people on TV and on the streets being outwardly racist, it’s easy to ask, “how can they possibly think that way,” in a rhetorical manner. But when you ask that question not rhetorically, but practically, and actually look for an answer, I truly think this has to have something to do with it.
Written by Grace Philips
After studying television and film production in Buffalo, NY, Grace moved to New York City in 2016 to pursue a career in the industry. Still climbing that non-corporate ladder, she's worked with production teams on numerous indie features, documentary shorts, and is independently working to option a feature script. As a woman in the industry, she has a front-row view of how much farther we have to go in terms of representation behind the camera (and of course in front) for women and people of color. She hopes to contribute positively to what the future of television and film looks like