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The Meaning of These Skins by Virginia Avniel Spatz

I was taught, from early childhood, about the fragility of my skin: without lotion it would crack and peel, a little chlorine or “nature” could mean days of itchy rash, and it would burn to blistering in just a few minutes of sun without protection. No one at home or school ever mentioned the power of my skin, its ability to inflame, or the potential danger I carried just by being my pale, freckled female self. But the wider Chicago world had a lot to say about the meaning of my skin.

 

1972, on the Lake Street 'L (now “the Green Line”)

I was flattered, and not yet suspicious at the age of 12, to have boys approach me. I was happy to chat about whether there was too much homework at my West Side school, if I had a record-player or a transistor [radio] at home, and if I liked the Jackson Five. It was their surprise that surprised me – so, looking back, I'm guessing I had never before met Black people who didn't know any White people.

 

I was certainly aware of the malevolence with which some our fellow Chicagoans viewed the sight of us, three Black boys and a White girl giggling together. But I'd been taught to shrug that off as ignorance. We were all supposed to be joining hands to sing, “C'mon people now, smile on your brother, and – yes, really – “Kumbaya.” Weren't we? I knew it was a little unusual that my elementary school was preparing to sing “Black & White” – “...the child is black, the child is white, together we learn to read and write...” – at our eighth-grade graduation. I think I believed, though, that most schools had such an anthem, whether they sang it or not.

 

In any case, I'm sure I was much more worried about appearing sufficiently cool to my new companions than I was concerned about the way others were watching us and what it might mean for them.

 

But I've wondered, when that flash of 'L-ride memory appears, if the boys considered, before approaching me, the picture we created and the consequences it could carry. And I've wondered what, if anything, about that 'L ride stayed with them as they met other White girls over the years: the little bit of commonality we shared, as a result of their crossing the space between us? The White business man strolling over to ask if “those boys” were bothering me? Or the motherly Black woman, giving me a harsh look and sending my new friends back to their original seats?

 

1978, at the home of Craig's friend

It hadn't been my choice to double-date in the first place, but it didn't seem such a big deal to pick up the other couple and be on our way. Craig said his friend knew I was white, although he wasn't sure about the whole family.

At the door, the friend's grandmother told us that the other couple was not yet ready to leave. She clearly struggled with her options but did usher us in and offer us a spot on the couch. I know I thought her old-fashioned and close-minded....until we hit the theater. We did not meet any truly serious backlash that night. But it was clear that interracial dating on a liberal college campus had done nothing to prepare me for the waves we created in the world outside. And it was a long time before I understood the danger the grandmother saw in us, a pale blond woman and a coffee-colored black man, enjoying each other's company on the far South Side.

 

1979, 76th and South Shore Drive

For a few months, in the period after “managed integration” and before “reinvestment,” when white residents, like my housemates and me, were quite rare, I lived in Chicago's South Shore neighborhood. The room was cheap and close to the Illinois Central station, and the area reminded me of the West Side, where I'd been raised.

 

In the mornings, my walk to the IC, which took me downtown to work, was short and pleasant.  Nighttime, when the bars were open, was another story. Already skittish about walking alone in the dark, I had to run a gauntlet of catcalls and other rude remarks. In particular, the bane of my existence was one bar on the north side of 76th, right near the tracks.

 

From that bar's doorway, a gathering of men, half-hidden in the dark, remarked on every woman who passed. My unusual looks for that neighborhood drew specific remarks, with a range of crudeness, about my blond hair and fair skin and overall Whiteness.

 

...Any woman my age then – and I was not yet out of my teens – was no stranger to whistles, propositions, groping hands, or worse. Many men considered remarking on women's bodies their right, maybe even a compliment – too many still do. Comments about my presence in that part of town were not surprising either. I'd grown up in Chicago, after all. I knew how fiercely our hyper-segregated neighborhoods defended their streets from anyone new or different and that the men hollering at me surely faced all sorts of harassment throughout our racist town....

 

But no sociological musings did anything to ease my walk. On the contrary, each night's walk dragged

me, ever more deeply, through a much of misgivings: Maybe the naysayers were right and my choice

of cheap, convenient lodgings was a mistake. Maybe integration really was impossible. Or maybe it was just me, as many said, who was naïve and “looking for trouble.” And then one particular night, it seemed that trouble had found me, whether I'd been looking or not.

 

As I passed the dreaded doorway, I heard a loud declaration – “Sure would like a taste of that white meat” – followed by a deep chorus of chuckles and then approaching footsteps. Was one of the creeps

taking a bolder step? Would I need to scream and run?

I was a breath away from flight when I heard a friendly, if strange and male, voice ask, “Can I walk with you?”

I was instantly relieved. Then, just as quickly, worried again: The polite request was so incongruous that I wondered momentarily if it were somehow part of the doorway entertainment – a dare or a bet, maybe, or a dangerous set-up. Such sinister motives aside, I couldn't shake concern about walking off alone in the dark with a strange man. But something told me to agree, and we fell into step.

He suggested coming home with me and, failing that, a future date. We had the usual street conversation – this one more curious than rancorous – about whether I ever dated black men. I couldn't tell if he had any real interest or was just employing a sort of default conversation mode. In either case, he continued to walk me away from that bar, even as I refused his advances. When our paths were about to diverge, and I failed to take advantage of my “last chance,” he bowed out with mock-drama: “Of course, you realize, this means we'll never see each other again.”

 

The stranger's interest in consent was remarkable then – sadly, still far from universal. His relaxed friendliness made me feel less stupid for thinking I could just plop myself down in any neighborhood and expect it to make room for me. And, of course, he got me away from the creeps on a night when I felt especially menaced. But it was years before I could really articulate the heart of my gratitude for what was, in essence, a strange dude hitting on me in the dark, while I was just trying to get home.

 

As he predicted, we never did meet again. But I puzzled over his intentions for some time: a rescue attempt? a pick-up, however fortuitous for me? just passing time? Eventually, I realized that it didn't matter. Because, ultimately, I was grateful to him, regardless of motive, for treating my skin as part, and not the definition, of me. For making me feel human again after having been called meat.

 

2015, Longworth Congressional Cafeteria

An interfaith group is preparing for a Black Lives Matter protest at the U.S. Capitol. The plan is to employ the “die-in,” invented and promoted by young activists to protest the killing of black people by police. Younger activists in the planning group argue for black “victims” only, in recognition of the privilege white skin affords. Some older clergy say they're not in the demographic likely to be killed by police, either, regardless of skin color. Others argue for the importance of interfaith, interracial unity of action.

 

In the event, most of us “die” on the cafeteria floor, and I end up shoulder-to-shoulder with a black male clergyman. I realize that this scene dilutes the picture the die-in originally aimed to create, and I understand the frustration of the activist who had argued earlier: “We're beyond that brothers holding hands stuff – that's not what this is about.” But the minister I'm touching is older than me. And, lying there next to him – white female skin against black male skin, while House staffers maneuver around us and cameras click above us – I think the generations have much to learn from one another about the meaning of these skins.

 

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Virginia Avniel Spatz

Virginia Avniel Spatz writes for local and national audiences, focusing on education, religion, justice, and community. As a freelance, Virginia has spent 20 years producing features, a monthly news column, and, most currently, a series on worship communities for the DC-based Capital Community News. She also writes radio and blog items for the Education Town Hall on We Act Radio. She published juvenile non-fiction in national Cobblestone periodicals (1993-94).