the long walk home 11
I love it when white people tell me they’ve lived in Hawaii. How was it? I ask eagerly, as if I were imagining Paradise with a capital P. Why on earth did you leave? I exhale breathlessly.
I love the answer. Not the words, but that look on their eyes. Yeah, not in, on. Those shadows that run across their visages as they … remember. I don’t know why, but I experience a certain glee. It’s almost … It’s not nice. I know it’s not nice. And I still ask.
It wasn’t always this way. The first time I remember asking those questions, a white woman happened to mention that she had lived in Hawaii. How was it? I asked eagerly, imagining Paradise with a capital P. Something in her seemed to close in on itself in response to my question. I paused as it occurred to me that this closing seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place my finger on how or why this was so, and I tried again. Why on earth did you leave? That thing was still closed, but she explained that she had a hard time finding work there. I would learn later that she would have had an easier time finding and keeping work if she were black. Better still if she were Japanese. What strikes me most is how much she didn’t say. Or couldn’t. It was a fairly short conversation. I wanted more details, but she really didn’t want to give them. And whatever she was closing inside seemed to call for privacy, the way you might respect the privacy of a hospital curtain pulled closed. Or a person praying at a wake. I remember that she seemed to be deeply ashamed.
There are some white people you meet who love to give the “I know what it is to be discriminated against” spiel. And they invariably tell some story about some trivial episode in their lives when they think they’ve been a victim of prejudice because they wore flip-flops to court or something. They always proudly recount their experience, showing off “battle scars” of their oh-so-very troubling episode. It always seemed so false, but it was so hard for me to determine why until I remembered Hawaii.
Even when she shared about her experience in Hawaii, there was no claim that she knew what it was to be black, or that she knew what is was to be discriminated against, or to be a victim of prejudice. She darn sure didn’t recount her story proudly, as if it were a flag or Girl Scout badge. She barely wanted to talk about it at all.
And that’s the difference, I think, between those who have experienced a situation and start waving me-too flags, and those whose lives were affected by a policy. There’s a difference in the way they tell the story, and how, and to whom.
The bad part is that I keep asking the questions. There is a part of me that enjoys seeing that look on their faces when I ask. I don’t want to look at why I enjoy that. And there is another part of me that wants to know. What happened? I live in America, so I know what it’s like for me. What I want to know is what it’s like for them. You know, when they pull that hospital curtain around so you can’t see, you usually want to peek. I think that it’s hard enough to put into words when something like that happens. This isn’t supposed to be the place where that happens, even when it happens every day. So it’s a little weird to put the thoughts and feelings to sound. I think I keep asking because if I collect enough of those looks on their eyes, I’ll know what happened.