Friday, September 19, 2008

being busy - and being invisible at church

good gracious!
this week has been a little bit full.

had a date on monday (went well), worked furiously to get ready to leave town for a conference meeting on tuesday, was in indianapolis on wednesday for my meeting, flew back, worked furiously on thursday to catch up and now - hey! more working furiously while also getting ready for a church retreat over the weekend, a birthday party and maybe a tennis date.

speaking of church, here's a little story i haven't had a chance to share. it reminded me that, as progressive as my congregation is, it has a LOOONG way to go to recognize something that Macon D over at Stuff White People Do has written about here and here. (And has posted a fine analysis of non-white reaction to what white people do here.)

i was with some church folks at a farewell reception for a church colleague. most of the people there were from Session, some i recognized from my years as Deacon, and some from my position as board member on the non profit organization housed at the church. in other words, these were not complete strangers to me.

but as the cocktail party wore on, it became clear that people did not recognize me to the same extent that i recognized them.

little old white ladies rushed up to me and cooed, 'oh, stacy! it's so good to see you here!' repeatedly, they did this - even after someone else had introduced me as 'Ding,' member of the Such&Such Board. oh, the stiff smile i'd wear as their eyes would blink and flutter and i could see their confusion, which probably sounded a little like this:

'what? but - but - stacy is The Black Girl! this is a Black Girl, so...this must be stacy! but she says she's not stacy! but she must be! why isn't she stacy?!'


when i put in my requisite 90 minutes of cocktailing, i sat in the lounge area to check my messages on my cell phone. a man from the reception came up to me, hugged me and said, 'oh, stacy! it was really good to see you tonight!'

i had been standing next to this man when the departing executive director of our organization publicly thanked me for my service on the board - and said my name.

flatly, i said, 'i'm not stacy.'
he said, 'oh.' silence. uncomfortable silence as i stared at him, with my cell phone in my hand. i was not smiling.

he said, 'well, it was good to see you.' and rushed away while i really tried not think bad thoughts about white people - and failed.

who is stacy? stacy is the african american woman who runs the very successful tutoring and mentoring program at our church. stacy and i look nothing alike.

and, clearly, the white people i serve with at church think she and i are exactly the same person. this is not the first time this has happened to me. at our mission benefit, at a board dinner, and during coffee hour while i stand at our organization's table during a fundraising campaign - i am every other black woman in church except who i really am.

do white people really not see the differences between us? do we really blur and blend into indistinguishable shapes? are we just all brown and black and yellow blobs that float indistinctly in and out of white vision?

this is the kicker: not one person apologized for mistaking me for stacy. not a single word of apology passed their thin, christian lips.


Songbird said...

Your first label sums it up.

ding said...

it's really a shame, you know?
i like my church. i like its doctrine, its history and i love going there (though i should go more.)

but things like this make me roll my eyes. because, of course, they'd be horrified if anyone called them racist.

Phoebe Caulfield said...

That's really shitty, but I can shed light on this for you. I remember learning in undergrad about some research that wound up showing that people have trouble distinguishing between people outside of their own race (Other-race effect
As someone who grew in in rural PA, with limited exposure to non-white races, I can tell you that it is embarrassingly difficult to tell the difference sometimes--even for other white people! (two blonde sorority-type girls almost always look alike to me, i swear). Some people are a lot better at facial recognition than others, and some people, like me, just have trouble all across the board. I have to see a person many times to get their face down.

I have had black women mistake me for other white women at least twice in my life. And an asian professor whom I studied abroad with had the the worst time telling all of us apart. So it happens, and it sucks. And those people DEFINITELY should have apologized to you. And I'm sorry for them too, because I know how totally embarrassing that is for them, and I'm sure they knew they must have offended you terribly. It's hard to know what to say after making such a major faux-pas (because basically all you can think is, "shit that was so racist of me. I want to crawl into a hole and die now").