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I turned 50 this year and I was not exactly fired up about it. In fact, I openly hated it, which made a birthday party that my sister planned a bit of a task. But instead of making it miserable for everyone around me, I did the adult thing: I stuffed it down and put booze and food on it. A close friend, firmly on the other side of the number, tried to lift me out of my fugue. “Fifty is gonna set you free,” she told me in a conspiratorial whisper. “You just don’t realize it yet.” I nodded my head, accepted her novelty wine glass with “WHATEVER” airbrushed on the side with a smile, and when she was out of sight, continued to wallow privately in my self-imposed pity party.
On paper, I have nothing to be upset about: great kids, fulfilling marriage and a roof over my head that I don’t share with a bank. And, by and large, I’m trying to care less how people think of me. Some days that last part seems to be a losing battle. One minute I’m tough, the next, a random comment will have me in tears. Maybe it’s hormones, I don’t know. It would be nice if thoughtless people wounded me less.
This came into sharp relief when a woman sidled up to me in the drugstore recently to unload her unsolicited sadness and fear about our present Prime Minister’s recent racial gaffe. “Aren’t you so, so disappointed?” she asked, and then, before I could answer her, started laying out all of the reasons that she felt let down by him. I had never laid eyes on this older white lady before this day, but I guess she saw me – a tall, unassuming black lady hovering near the menopause vitamins – and assumed that I would somehow be charmed or comforted by her transparency.
But I was not. Not one little bit.
There was a time that I might have listened, when I might have taken the time to show her just how even-tempered and woke I could be; when I would have explained in my least-angriest tone of voice how seeing cluelessness on this level was hurtful, disappointing and, ironically, possibly forgivable. I would have explained to her how far away from my values this was and how I was struggling with it. And then, I would have made sure that she understood what seeing a white person in blackface does to a person of colour’s soul when they are forced to confront it long past its due date.
But I did and said none of those things.
I was free. Now that I had passed the half-century mark, I could hang up my Blacksplaining Coat and shove it toward the back of my closet, with the moon boots and the mom jeans.
What I was free to say now was that, while I want to help you, now I am officially done being the token black person who educates white people on everything minority. And while we are at it, I have a question for you: Why do you assume that I was a safe spot to park your grief? I’ve spent a lifetime meeting you where you are, so why can’t you meet me where I am? If you really want to have an honest dialogue with a person of colour, be prepared to be uncomfortable and risk possibly hearing a thing or two that that might hurt your feelings. Such as hearing that your black friends don’t like having their hair touched. Or that they don’t see it as a victory when you tell them that they don’t “see” colour.
What did I actually say to this woman? First, let me tell you how I got out of my turning-50-funk. A few weeks after my party, I agreed to clear out some of my books in our family-shared study. I had just watched that Marie Kondo show and was genuinely moved by the spirit of thankfulness at the heart of the decluttering exercise. Sitting on the floor engulfed in a sea of books, my eyes caught on The Beetle Bush. It was published in 1976 and was about a feisty little girl who fights her feelings of creative frustration by planting a garden. It was one of the first chapter books that I’d ever read – I probably read it more than a hundred times – and had truly loved it. But when I opened it up, I noticed that long ago I had taken a pencil and lightly coloured in the girl’s face. I had gotten sick of reading books with characters that didn’t look like me and thought, “screw this!” And made it right. Like a boss. And then I laughed. Oh, how I laughed.
Sometimes the best lens through which to see and understand discrimination is the one given to us by our families. The one I was given as a child was highly distorted because my parents surrounded me with images of black excellence. Similar to parents who hide kale in brownies, I absorbed these things without realizing that I was being fed nutritious food: Books by black authors that they had found in the library, stories of activists who were forging along through sheer perseverance. It also didn’t hurt that I had great examples in my own family: Such as my grandfather who was one of the first black graduates of McGill’s medical school and the architects, lawyers, teachers, writers and engineers who showed me that I could be who I wanted to be. How can you have feelings that black people are secondary when you come from people like this? How can you sweat 50 in this company?
Which brings me back to the woman in the drugstore.
“Sorry to interrupt,” I said, “but I came here for vitamins.” And then I lifted up the bottle and shook them so she could get a good look. Then I smiled and asked her if she had ever taken any herself. She cleared her throat and pointed to her favourite brand. And then I picked them up, put them in my cart, thanked her and walked away. Like a boss.
Laura Francis lives in Port Perry, Ont.