Every once in a while I have one of those moments. I guess we all do. Those moments when time slows down, the world tilts sideways, and I find myself thinking Did that really just happen?
Last year I had a real doozy. It was one of those times that could have easily hit DEFCON 1. Pretty much the only thing motivating me to keep it together was T-man and my instinct to protect him from seeing his mama go nuclear.
T-man wasn’t feeling great so we’d gone to the doctor, and things were cruising right along until we met with the intake nurse. He was talking with T-man, and I suppose he was trying to boost my son’s spirits by telling him all the things he had going for him.
Among that list? “You seem like a smart kid, and you speak so well.”
I understand this might not be setting off alarms for some of you. Heck, when I told BrightSide about it later even he wrote it off as a simple compliment.
But I was in the room.
I didn’t know until today that the expression “I know it when I see it” came from a Supreme Court decision. It seems that in 1964 U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart described his threshold test for obscenity with “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within [the term “hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I never could succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” (Potter Stewart)
At any rate, the same philosophy applies here. Because some people might read what the nurse said and think, “Well yeah, T-man is a smart kid and he does express himself well.”
Except that’s not what the nurse meant. He meant T-man speaks so well. And if you were sitting in that room the underlying message was loud and clear…T-man speaks so well, for a young black man.
I had bigger things on my mind that day but even so the phrase bounced around inside my head, setting off fireworks I was working hard to disguise. The nurse sandwiched this backhanded compliment between “you seem like a smart kid” and “you’ve got a mom who loves you,” so smoothly that if your attention wavered you might miss it. Hell, maybe he didn’t even understand what he was saying.
By pointing out how “well” my 11-year-old son speaks this man implied how poorly T-man would be communicating if he weren’t applying himself. That using proper English was a real accomplishment (although, given the state of affairs in texting, I might agree). That speaking appropriately was worthy of commentary instead of an expectation.
I suppose the crux of it was that I am 100% certain if I’d been sitting there with a son who was white, speaking well would never have been among his qualities to be praised.
Just try to picture this: a tired mama (yeah, I was pretty ragged) sitting with her white child. The boy is dressed like every other kid his age – sweatpants and an UnderArmour shirt – and sitting quietly while the nurse takes his temperature and blood pressure. He’s looking pretty puny, so the nurse tries to point out some good things in the kid’s life. “You seem like a smart kid”? Sure. “You’ve got a mom who loves you”? Probably. “And you speak so well”? Um, nope.
Not. In. A. Million. Years.
All too often T-man is made to feel different, in a hundred little ways, and I feel powerless to stop it. He’s stuck with this world we live in, one that still needs a whole lot of work.