Being Brown in the Suburbs: No Burnt Crosses, But A Few Cross Looks

I should have known by the look in his eyes. The middle-aged white man looked at my chocolate self, then to my light-skinned baby and back to me. “Excuse me,” he said walking closer. “But is his father white or Asian?”

The color of us by Erica Lynn Hang.

I paused. Did he just ask me that? Here? In the frozen-food section of the grocery store?

Inhale. Exhale. “He’s white,” I said, feeling my blood rise. Gathering courage to stand my ground for whatever racial onslaught was to come, I said louder, bolder: “He’s Norwegian.”

“Oh.” He responded and walked toward me, fumbling to pull something out of his pocket. Egad, what is he going to do? You know folks are crazy.

“The reason I’m asking is because this is my family.” He pulls out a picture of himself, a round black woman and two very tall biracial boys all smiling in their Sunday best. “The oldest is in college and this one’s in middle school.”

I melt.

“Let me show you my other son.” I whip out my phone and pull up a picture of Logan with his wildly curly hair and caramel skin.

“Do you guys live here? Are they treating you OK?” He looks very concerned, it’s clear he cares. By “they” he means the community, our predominantly white, moderately conservative Chicago suburb. He’s not asking me if there’s been crosses burnt on our lawns, but if we’re treated well, like equals, genuinely received by our neighbors.

We do like it here and generally have had no issues. Unlike our previous suburb, where everyone at the grocery store from the cashiers to the customers were routinely rude to me. At the time I chalked it up to grumpy people, then one day I took my husband shopping with me. It was a marked difference, people smiled when they greeted you in the aisle, asked you if you needed any help, there was no hostility. I was shocked.

After that trip with him, I told him he needed to come to the grocery store with me each time because I didn’t want to be treated so rudely. It sucked because it felt a bit like we had the Black Codes in the grocery store, where I needed a white person to vouch for me.

(There was also a bit of that Saturday Night Live episode where Eddie Murphy went undercover as a white man. On the bus, after all the black people were gone, he watched how a party broke out among the whites.)

That grocery store experience was a few years ago and in another suburb, where we live now it is better. And this time in the store, this white man was telling me how he and his wife did have some struggles several years ago, but that his kids enjoyed the good schools. “They are good at the schools,” he said nodding meaningfully. As if to reassure me that it won’t matter to the other kids that my boys are biracial.

Ethan started to squawk and I needed to finish up my shopping, so we said goodbye. I wished him a nice day.

Smiling, I walked away thinking I should have known by the look in his eyes. When this white man looked at me and my family, he saw his own.


17 responses to “Being Brown in the Suburbs: No Burnt Crosses, But A Few Cross Looks

  1. Good for you for writing about this subject! I’m glad you had a good experience in the frozen food section recently. But I really had no idea that your type of situation from a few years ago still occurs today. It opened my eyes.

    • Thanks Danielle. Yes, I’m glad I had a good experience too. A lot of these kinds of things and much worse still happen, I’ve got more stories from our ‘hood, I suppose I should blog about those too. 🙂 Thanks again for your comment.

  2. This made me teary. 🙂

  3. Goose bumps appeared as I read your post. To think this day in age people will still treat others differently based on the color of their skin or who they marry or even the color of the child’s skin blows me away and makes my heart sad. We are all human. Period. That is all that should matter but unfortunately the world is still made up of ignorant humans. With the ignorant humans is where all the problems lie and that is sad.

    • What a wonderful compliment to think that my writing gave you goose bumps. You’re right there’s a lot of ignorance out there, a lot. I’m glad things are getting better, but as a society we’ve got much more work to do. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. You write so well…

  5. This makes me happy. Not the whole you were mistreated part, but the fact that he took the time to let you know that it will be ok. What a sweet man.

  6. Good one Mel!! That was my family growing up and still happens today when the whole family is together.Imagine the looks we get when my Black babies call out Great-grandma to a 90 year old white haired Sweedish woman. But thats my family and very proud of it. Good for you !!

    • Thanks Lulu! I can only imagine what it’s like for you guys when the whole family’s together, a beautiful rainbow but one that gets a couple double takes. You should be proud of your family! They’re fantastic. 🙂

  7. Great post! I love being able to see the world through someone else’s eyes — warts and all. And what a nice man.

  8. I got goose bumps too! What a sweet man, even though he started a little rocky. 😉
    Even though my husband and I are white, having our Roma (gypsy) daughter that is mistaken for African or mix causes some stares. However, they are usually positive. I expected negativity before we adopted her, but we have had none. I know it’s because she is just so beautiful!! =P
    I love our mixed family! I wouldn’t want it any other way! And we just try and do our best to give her confidence in who she is and that she belongs to God and it doesn’t matter what others think. I know it may not always be easy for her as she gets older and we will do our best to prepare her!
    Thanks for writing about this!

  9. I think about that a lot, making sure I’m doing the right things to give my children confidence in who they are. It’s a delicate balance because I want them to have confidence, but I also want them to understand boundaries, even while they’re pushing them at all times. Thanks for stopping by!

  10. Pingback: Crossing More Racial Barriers In The Frozen Food Aisle | She'sWrite

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