My son is insured by his father, so my ex-husband and I went to the doctor's office together. We're all friends; my ex's wife came in with us and sat in the waiting room with the kids while we spoke with the women at the front desk. During Ramadan, his wife wears hijab, the headscarf that marks Muslim women. My daughter and her little brother, my ex's son, watched the fish swimming in a large tank.
The women at the front desk informed us that we would have to wait two weeks to talk to the person in charge of billing. But my son had an injury, I explained, we can't wait two weeks. By "explained" I mean "I yelled." My ex demanded to speak with a manager or someone with whom we could resolve the problem immediately. By "demanded," I mean, "he yelled."
We were directed to a consult room while they arranged for someone from Billing to settle our problem. Eventually my ex's wife, her little son and my daughter joined us so we could all hang out together while we waited.
One of the office staff finally emerged and asked my ex to follow her, so I stood up, too. She said only he was needed. I said I wanted to be there and I followed them.
We were led to a room where we were met by two police officers. The staff member folded her arms in front of her and aligned herself with the cops while my ex and I gaped. By "gaped" I mean that I said, "Oh, my God, I don't freakin' believe this!" and my ex said, "What is this?"
The White officer asked my ex if he had muttered something under his breath. My ex and I looked at each other and simultaneously said, "What?"
"Did you mutter something under your breath when you were speaking to the staff out front? One of the nurses thinks you said something, but she wasn't sure because of your heavy accent."
Can they bust you for cursing? Or having an accent?
My ex started restating our desire for an appointment for our son.
"I understand that you have been dismissed from this practice and that you refused to leave."
"That's news to me," I muttered, no accent.
"Did you threaten the staff here?"
My ex and I in unison, "What?"
"Did you threaten to shoot them if you were not given an appointment?"
My ex and I gaped, this time no words.
"The staff member said she was not absolutely certain because of your heavy accent."
My ex said, "I will sue this office and I will sue the police force!"
I said, "I bet that's what he said, 'I'll sue you if you don't see my son.'"
The cop said this was just a misunderstanding and I said, "Is racism a misunderstanding?" By that I mean I wish I'd said that. I really said, "I understand perfectly. He has an accent and a Muslim name and his wife came in wearing a head scarf, and these are a bunch of idiot racists who don't take care of sick kids."
We were escorted outside. Luckily, my daughter and the others had walked to a nearby park so they didn't witness any of this. The White cop smiled and said, "I know you didn't say anything wrong. You have to understand that we have to respond to every call, regardless." He went back inside and left us with his partner.
In the summer, cops change their attire to short-sleeved uniforms. The officer tapped his bare arm and said to my ex, "You see this? Do you know what Jim Crow is? I was alive then, and I deal with this every day of my life. It happened and it's gonna keep happening. You just have to deal with it and move on. Get used to it. That's all you can do. "
~ ~ ~
My ex laughed and said, "How does it feel to eat off my spoon?"
My children are Egyptian and Muslim, I will always eat off your spoon, I say. What I don't say is that I have never felt such a gulf between my children and myself and I am terrified. Later that evening, my ex blames me for the incident at the doctor's office. He's fasting, he's cranky, he's had a hard day, he's basically nuts, I can make all sorts of excuses for him, but if I am honest, I have to admit that I feel it, too.
When you are always perceived as guilty before being proven innocent, as anyone with pigmented skin knows, you keep a low profile. I drew him into the line of fire.
I wonder if what I'm feeling is White Man's Guilt or if, on the contrary, self-loathing is a common response to being the victim of racism. I am enraged, self-righteous, indignant, yes; but I also feel as if somehow this misunderstanding is my fault. I've heard that victims of rape feel, bafflingly, that they are in part to blame. I may look white, it may be invisible to your eyes, but I am the mother of Egyptian, Muslim children, and no matter how I'm treated, that makes me just like them: what you do to my children, you do to me.
I end up telling my 15-year-old son, the injured child, about it, even though I promised my ex I wouldn't. His sister had heard about it because she was with us. He kept asking why I wouldn't take him to the doctor when he was hurt, so I told him.
My son's first response was anger. Then he said, "Take me there, they'll have to take me when I show up. They can't turn away a kid who's hurt if he's standing right in front of them." He believed that and I didn't want him to believe otherwise, but I was also afraid he'd go to the doctor's office on his own. I had to protect him.
"I look white," my son said later, "but are they gonna treat me that way cause of my name? What's gonna happen when I get older?"
I explained that I was telling him all this because we have to stand up for ourselves, and for anyone who is being mistreated. To give in just feeds the problem, I told him.
"But if we make a big deal about it, can't they lie and say we threatened them and put Daddy in jail?"
Keep a low profile. Because my son has white skin, it took him longer to figure it out than the average Black kid.
My 13-year-old daughter said, "If you write your letter to the paper, it's good if you sign your name so they see you're white. That'll make them listen."
I first realized my children were separate from me when they were inside me, kicking. Other women say they've never felt more bonded to their children, that it's the defining moment of motherhood. It was a magical moment for me, too, but bittersweet. I couldn't dismiss what I felt to be true physically, deep inside me: my child was distinct from myself. He fluttered and somersaulted inside me, already an independent agent, and I had no control or influence. That shock of quickening was the beginning of separation.
My children see themselves apart from me now, not just our taste in clothes, books, and music, but by the way others treat us. These children are part of me, even if a world of racists doesn't see it, even if the dirty filter of race has begun to distort the way my children see themselves and me.
Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., did not keep a low profile, but they were exceptional men whose lives were governed by their high and selfless ideals, with little concern for self-protection.
I'm no Malcolm or Martin, I'm no activist. I'm just a middle-aged white woman taking care of her kids, a newb without enough common sense to keep my mouth shut.