When I was ten and we still lived in Ithaca where I was born, my parents bundled us four kids into the gray Dodge and we rolled down the hill sans seat belts and quarreling over whose window was whose to the old neighborhood for my brother’s Kiwanis game. My best friend from first grade, Julianna, was there, and she met my little sister Eileen for the first time. Eileen was born when we lived on Wood St., but we moved shortly thereafter up to the top of Mitchell St, my parents always in the quest for a better school system.
As we moved up the educational ladder our neighborhoods got richer and whiter, and Eileen had never seen a person with brown skin before. She studied Julianna with frank fascination.
“How come youíre brown?” Eileen’s question made my mother flush with embarrassment. This was the mid-sixties, and my parents had instructed us that black people were Just Like Us. My father wore an electric blue sportcoat to Folk Mass at the Catholic Church on Sundays. Once when I leaned over and tried to make a joke about Blowing in the Wind, he got tears in his eyes as he replied that many people were not allowed to be free.
But our parents had not taught us how to answer simple questions like, “How come you’re brown?” and we certainly were not supposed to ask such things. When I was six Eileen came out mommy’s vagina and we have bowel movements not poops but what? What is she asking? Who’s brown?
My mother’s embarrassment and silence infected our group, and no one could answer Eileen. Julianna looked from one of us to another. She did not know what she was supposed to say. Eileen kept asking, wanting so much to know. “How come you’re brown?” It’s beautiful, she might have said if she were not two years old, I’ve never seen such skin, I’m curious, may I know more?
I believe that love sees color. Color, gender, size, class; all our differences and similarities. Love sees color and is curious, innocent, celebrating. Not to judge, but to notice and to ask.
Why are you brown? Why am I white? Look, it’s all kinds of color here on our skin.
Let’s talk about it. We are not all alike. The well-meaning teachings of equality I grew up with did not address this simple fact.
Living on the West Coast now, I notice that people from out East are more comfortable asking, “Are you Jewish? Italian? Catholic?” Then they want to talk about it.
In Eugene, Oregon, asking about someone’s ethnicity can get confused with racism. Why do you want to know?
Love sees no color, they say. I disagree. I belive that love sees color. Let’s talk about it. Let me listen. Because whenever I see one of those T-shirts that say Love Sees No Color, I think of my sister Eileen’s baby voice asking, my mother’s blush and Julianna looking more and more separate from us, and how long it has taken me to answer.
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