A Tense, Polite Distance

I nanny in Columbia City, an area in South Seattle that is supposedly the most diverse zip code in the northwest.  I have nannied there for years, first for two boys, then for their neighbors, a family with three girls.  It’s the kind of neighborhood where people know the kids by name and if we go to the playground we always see people we know.  At the girls’ house, we can hear chickens from three directions.  There is a booming farmer’s market that does not feel too swanky and a park where we see eagles, kingfishers, and salmon.  And of course, there are all sorts of people.  Having grown up in North Seattle, where there were more children of lesbian couples in my school than there were black kids, the diversity in Columbia City is a revelation to me.

Yet at the same time, when I nannied the boys, the neighborhood always had a little bit of an oil-and-water feel to me.  There were lots of different people there, and everyone was generally friendly, but they mostly stuck to their own race.  Yes, one of the boys was one of just a couple of white kids in his class and had friends from Mexico and East Africa, but his brother, in the Montessori track of the elementary school, was in a class of nearly all white kids — clearly there was some kind of safety-valve segregation happening.  Mixed in to that was the classic Seattle link between money and elevation.  Richer people live on hills; poorer people live in hollows.  Columbia City is steep, therefore it is class-diverse, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that people mix up and down those hills.

But since I’ve started nannying the girls, my experience of the neighborhood has changed.  Sometimes it really feels like one big happy soup of people.

So, I should explain, that the boys, as well as the family I nannied before them, look just like me.  Not only are they white, they are blue-eyed, dirty-blond, small featured, compact kids.  Except that they aren’t, they look like they are mine.  The girls, on the other hand, look nothing like me.  First of all, they are black.  And tall and limby.  Hypothetically, my straight-haired, sunburnable genetics could be buried somewhere in there, but it isn’t most people’s first read of the situation.  (Though when I walk around with the baby, people do often think she is mine.  No one flirts with you when you have a baby on your chest.  Just saying.)

This all means that I am not constantly negotiating people’s impression that I am the kids’ mom.  But beyond that, something really interesting has happened.  My interactions in the neighborhood have shifted.  When I interact with people of other races, sort of tense, polite distance has lifted.

Some of it is probably — hopefully — a continued shift in myself as I become more comfortable with the spectrum of humanity.  It’s a continually resurfacing thing, this uncomfortableness I find inside myself.  Mostly, I think, it’s a fear of offending someone.  A fear of being hated, of being hate worthy. Of being one unconscious, entitled asshole in a long line of unconscious, entitled assholes.  It makes me, sometimes, completely unable to discuss race.  Look at my first novel, for instance: there is a Cuban ex-revolutionary and a Native mayor, but other than that, no one has a race that I mention.  Which of course somehow makes them white.  I don’t even picture all the characters as white, but damned if I could communicate that in the book. My own need to be seen as a non-racist person keeps me from actually dealing with race. Mix that awkwardness in with some doubt in my own ability to filter out passed-down cultural fears from genuine dangerous situations, and what do you get?  Tense, polite distance. Sometimes — maybe even more and more — I can get past this, but it’s not gone yet.

When I am out with the girls, other people treat me differently.  It’s like because the girls’ parents trust me, I can be trusted.  Or because I love these kids, I pass some test. I’m on the same side of some invisible thing. People of color nod at me, smile at me, talk to me, and there is this relaxedness, this benevolence, to the interactions that is only sometimes there when I am on my own.  And it’s frickin cool to feel.  It gives me this hopeful lovey-human-family feeling.  More than that, it gives me a sense of what is possible.  A reason to roll up my sleeves and really grapple with my feelings about race.  I can’t do anyone else’s part, but I might be able to get past my own awkwardness.  At the least, it will help me write truer fiction.

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3 thoughts on “A Tense, Polite Distance

  1. ‘I am not constantly negotiating people’s impression that I am the kids’ mom’

    Like the way you express that because that is exactly what happens black looks at white, white looks at Asian etc; but sometimes it gets to the point that trying to go around or get past people’s impression is non-negotiable. Well written piece.

  2. If people of color other than white react to you differently depending upon the color of the kids you are with, seems like the issue is theirs. Perhaps there are feelings and forces on both sides of the race question that persist the separation. That said, I agree with you that one thing we can do to improve the situation is to do our own work on our feelings and preconceptions about race.

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