During the fall of 2009, a bunch of people thought I was black.
Since you can’t see me, I’m just going to take a second to point out that I’m not black. In fact, Casper the Ghost has been known to rock a better tan than I have. I am pale, freckled in the way of the distantly Irish, and decidedly Caucasian.
At the time when my race came up for debate, I was working as a Children’s Librarian for Queens Library in New York. I was a designated “floater,” which meant that when there was a long term absence to cover I would be sent to fill in. That September I was sent to a branch in Hollis, Queens. Pretty much everyone who lived there, excepting a family or two of Indian or Hispanic descent, was Haitian or African American. The first day when I stepped off the bus, the driver gave me a skeptical look and asked me if I was sure I was getting off in the right place. One of the corner guys- which is what I called the dudes who stood on the corner all day smoking cigarettes- gave it the old college try, and hit me with a hackneyed “once you go black you never go back,” but aside from that, the adults in the neighborhood mostly just gave me vaguely puzzled looks.
The kids, thankfully, were a completely different story. At first they treated me with the wariness and disdain that kids ordinarily reserve for green vegetables and substitute teachers, but once they realized that I didn’t yell much, would willingly print out coloring pages, and believed that Halloween was a time for adults to buy children candy, we were fast friends.
One day in late October I was sitting at my desk, and I heard three little boys whispering about me.
Boy 1: Is Miss Rachel white?
Boy 2: Naw man, she’s light skin black.
Boy 3: Naw son! She’s definitely Caucasian.
Boy 1: I think she light skin too.
I chuckled to myself, surprised and amused. I assumed it was just those three 8-year-olds who couldn’t conceive of a white person working in their neighborhood, but not long after that I was proven wrong. I was fooling around with two six-year-old Haitian twins named Alex and Michael (pronounced in the French Creole way– “Ahhh-lex” and “MI-shell”) at the bus stop after work. I was pretending that I too had a twin, and that her name was, of course, Miss Satchel.
Alex: Does Miss Satchel have your same nose?
Michael: Does she have your same eyes?
Alex: Is she white like you?
Michael: (sounding embarrassed for his twin) Miss Rachel isn’t white!
Alex: Yes she is!!
Me: Errrr… I am actually.
Michael: …………………… Really?!
I realized then that the kids were making a standard logical error. Everyone in Hollis (including all but one of my coworkers) was black. I was in Hollis. Therefore, I was black. I was unsurprised when it happened again. This time it was a shy fifth grader named Lakeesha. ‘Keesha spent her days at the library with a child-sized chair pulled up to my desk, drawing and doing her homework. She often asked if she could play with my hair, but I always declined out of a desire to maintain some semblance of professionalism. One day around Christmas, she asked if she could put twists in my hair. “Oh,” I said, not really thinking, “Twists don’t work in white girl hair.” Lakeesha’s eyebrows shot up, and her mouth dropped open.
“I am,” I said, and thinking that at age-eleven Lakeesha could handle me pushing it a bit, I asked, “Don’t I look white?”
She nodded, but said “But you don’t talk white.” Inside I laughed- I TOTALLY talk white. See what I mean? I’ve been told I talk like a valley girl “but weirder.” Out loud I just said, “Maybe black people and white people don’t talk that differently ‘Keesha…”
“Maybe,” she allowed, but she spent the rest of the day at another table looking confused. The next day she was back by my desk, and we never talked about it again. When I was transferred a month later, ‘Keesha cried and clung to me when we hugged goodbye, and I have to admit, I cried a little too.
This story makes me happy in a “kids say the darndest things” kind of way, but it also makes me happy because it reminds me how differently from adults kids see the world. The adults in the neighborhood saw that I looked different and marked me as different. They liked me well enough, but they held their distance. There was no distance between me and those kids. They saw that I looked different and assumed I belonged anyway. They came to me when they needed homework help, cheering up, or a Band Aid. They laughed with me and hugged me and acted like most every kid I met at Queens Library- a little bit needy, a little bit tough, but ready to love any adult who showed them respect. Kids have a superpower- they enjoy a grace period where they are still blind to the societal distinctions that become so psychologically dominant as we age. Kids can hear, but for some increments in tone, that white people and black people don’t talk that differently, and that when it comes down to it, we don’t look all that differently either. So I get it. In those kids minds, “white” was just a word for “different from us,” and since they could see that at the core I wasn’t that different from them, it wasn’t the word they associated with me.
I’m battling the urge to end with something cheesy like “we’re all the same color on the inside” (ugh), but that’s over simplifying it. It think it’s more like this: Being the same “type” of person is less important than adults think. It’s being the type of person that understands and connects to those around that really matters.