When I was a child my grandmother and I would watch QVC in the evenings while she got ready for bed. Sitting at her vanity, she’d slather on her cold cream with her hair up in pin curls while I laid across the bed next to her with my feet kicked up and picked at the loose threads on the knit blanket. Her favorite segments on QVC were the Fenton glass basket sales and the porcelain dolls. She kept the TV turned down low during the makeup demonstrations declaring that the women looked like a bunch of hussey clowns in all of that lipstick, but when the porcelain dolls came on she turned up the volume and watched with her full attention.
Straight and tall, the creamy white dolls stood on their stands with bright, glossy eyes and ringlets of yellow, red, and chestnut hair falling down their shoulders from under boater hats. Decorated in Victorian lace and bows, these angels of the house were so beautiful. After a long day of housework my grandmother gave them all of her attention. She dumped her burdens and absorbed them. The camera panned across the line of dolls and stopped at the end to zoom in on the one with smooth dark porcelain skin. Her deep black eyes stared out unmoving but knowing and they pushed my grandma back into her chair as she looked away and finished wiping the cold cream off of her face.
“Oh, grandma look at that one. She’s beautiful,” I said wispily.
Jerking around with pinched brows, my grandma looked at me and said, “Now, you know that doll is ugly as sin. Don’t go saying stuff like that.” She turned off the TV and finished her night time beauty routine. Twisting hair. Smearing cream.
It’s quite amazing how years later old memories can apparate into our realities. I thought of that story of my grandma and the black porcelain doll this week after I packed up all three of my kids and went to the grocery store to pick up a few things for lunch. Waiting in the check out line, Ruby was sitting in the front of the shopping cart by me while the boys flipped through magazines. When we finally moved up a spot, we stood next to a young black lady in the line next to us with a little girl around the same age as Ruby in her cart. As I was in the middle of telling the boys, yet again, that they could not buy any candy, an older white man that was in line behind the black lady and her child walked over to Ruby, rubbed her hand and said, “Why hello blue eyes! Aren’t you a beauty!” I turned around to see him fawning over Ruby and I immediately felt my skin begin to glow as I noticed the young black man behind me give a knowing look to the other child’s mom. She looked at Ruby, then at the old man, pinched her mouth shut and turned around towards her baby. The old man continued on saying that Ruby would be a heart breaker one day and that she was just so sweet and pretty.
He didn’t notice a thing. Because what really just happened? Did anything happen? Did I read into the faces of the people around me? Impose my intuition on them? I don’t believe I did. Something very subtle and culturally big happened. And I thought of my grandma’s dolls. I remembered back to my grandmother telling me that the black doll was as ugly as sin and I felt ashamed. And angry. What happened in the grocery store with Ruby was so subtle that it was almost unnoticeable. Well, unnoticeable to the white man. The little black baby sat in his direct line of vision for minutes. There was no fawning. No talking. Almost as if the baby wasn’t there. And then we strolled ahead of him. He craned his neck and walked across the aisle towards Ruby to show his admiration for her beauty. I noticed. And so did the black adults around me. I was immediately uncomfortable for what he had done and I felt complicit. I was complicit. And, sadly, so was Ruby. My little girl has been born into a racial system that places her at the top of what is considered beautiful: blonde hair, blue eyes, creamy white skin. And there’s my grandmother again: “that doll is ugly as sin.”
There’s this myth out there among white people that if you bring up or talk about racism or oppression against people of color that you are in some way creating racial division. That uttering into words the everyday experiences of racism is what actually creates division and unrest, not racism itself. We think that if we keep silent about it, ignore it, only talk about chipper white-ass things, it will somehow magically not be there, if it was really there to begin with. I’m always perplexed by this cultural myth. It isn’t until something crosses or saddens us (white people), our own friends, our own family, or our own values that we feel compelled to share our grievances and concerns. In those moments we don’t consider bringing up how we’ve been wronged to be divisive. We consider it to be a part of the process of restoring justice. And it is. But this moment at the grocery store happened. That other mother’s beautiful little girl was ignored and vanished under the system of beauty that my child has privilege in. The people around me felt it and witnessed it. The division was there. It’s still there. Is my mentioning it and telling the story creating more division? Or, is it me warning us, white people, to open our eyes. To look around. To look at and see the faces of the people of color around us, these faces that have for centuries have been told are “ugly as sin.” It’s a lie. Look at them and remember that it’s always been a lie.
I think my daughter is so beautiful. Parents tend to always think that about their own children. And the other mother thinks the exact same about her daughter. If only our culture didn’t choose sides. As I was standing there watching the black adults around me groan at the display of centuries worth of racism, racism that they see every day, I didn’t know what to do. What could I have said or done to decenter this old white man’s perceptions of beauty? What could I have done to have made it right? I didn’t do anything. I just stood embarrassed and in disbelief. The old man went back to his place in line and silently waited for his turn to check out. I herded my kids back to our van and drove us all home. I played the scene over and over in my head for hours and couldn’t get the looks of the black man and woman out of my mind.They knew exactly what happened. And I wish I could tell them that I’m sorry. You’re so, so beautiful.
I decided then that this story had to be told. There are those that believe that these stories are divisive, that they create racial tension. Well, I’m here to tell you that there is already a divide. It’s been there for centuries. It’s told to our children when the beauty of black baby’s is ignored because our grandparents told us that they’re ugly as sin and dangerous as hell. Well, no more. No more.