Monday, January 16, 2006

for monique, wherever she is.

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love, 1963

in nutrition class a couple of weeks ago, we were asked to recall the first time we encountered racism, or rather, the first time we were made aware of its existence. i'm sure i was in the presence of it for much of my childhood but wasn't aware of it. my family, while loving and not openly discriminatory, has their "issues" surrounding race and religion. i like to think that i'm somehow exempt from that inheritance, but unfortunately, i didn't just get the good stuff: great eye-hand coordination, moody hazel-amber eyes that change colors when i cry and a mouth-watering flank steak recipe. nuh-uh.

me? i think i not only became aware of racism existing, but aware my own racist proclivities just before my 6th birthday. one helluva present, eh?

a few weeks before my birthday party, my mother sent me to school with invitations to hand out. she instructed me to be very careful because i hadn't invited every little girl in the class. namely, i hadn't invited monique. monique was the sole black student in my first grade class. i don't remember ever having viewed her as "different." i mostly remember being jealous of the numerous little pastel-colored barrettes she wore in her hair; she wore so many it was like her hair had been sprinkled with confetti. we played together in the schoolyard. we both had French names that started with an "M." we were the only girls in the class who could outrun the boys. i liked monique. i don't remember thinking of her as "different," but i must have thought something because i did not invite her to my party.

(25 years later, and i still feel a lump of guilt land in my gut with a resonant thump when i write/read that.)

to this day, i don't know why my mom didn't make me invite her. it clearly upset my mom that i hadn't. perhaps she thought she was letting me make my own decisions, giving me some sort of independence and ownership over my own party. whatever. i was six. i got a 25 cent/week allowance. i didn't own anything. i don't fault my mom for much, she was pretty damn near Donna Reed-perfect, but she should have made me invite monique.

inevitably, monique ended up finding out that i was having a party and that she wasn't invited. (we were six-year olds. six-year olds don't keep secrets.) what did i say? i don't even remember. i must have blocked it out because i was so absolutely and utterly ashamed. after all, i had absolutely no good reason for not having invited her. what could i say?

because you don't look like the other girls?

because your hair isn't silky like theirs?

because i can't see your freckles?

because your eyes are solid onyx in a setting of white, pupil and iris absolutely indistinguishable?

i often think about monique. i wonder how she is. did she ever leave milan? does she have children of her own? does she remember that party she wasn't invited to? i'm sure she's fine. i'm sure she recovered, had her own damn party, didn't invite me and wore 4,000 sparkly barrettes in her hair. i realize it's presumptious to think that i might have had some sort of lasting negative effect on her.

in retrospect (it only took 25 fucking years!), it makes me realize that racism is like any other disease, genetic or gotta fight it, you gotta talk about it, you gotta expose it to the light so that seething, pus-filled wound can heal. one big reason i have fought my eating disorders so vehemently is because i don't want to pass them on; either to my own children or to my nieces and nephews. same thing goes for racism. it doesn't just go away, and "just not knowing any better" isn't a reason to let it hang around and fester. it's contagious.

so thanks for that lesson, monique. even if i don't benefit from it, at least some future generations will. i hope you're happy wherever you are and that you have never ever given me and my stupid party a second thought. i really don't deserve it.

still, i sure would like to say i'm sorry.

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