Who knew an umbrella could cause trouble?
The other evening a friend and I went to a seminar in Philadelphia. We took the train into the city together and I didn’t bring an umbrella. I simply never think of it. She, however, was quite prepared. She was dressed in a lovely suit set, equipped with an umbrella. Of course when we walked out of the subway station it was raining. Not some light pleasant kind of rain but big plops of chilly miserable raindrops.
My friend kindly offered to share her umbrella with me. I offered to hold it and she let me for all of 2 minutes then she took it back over, thinking since she wore a jacket she needed it less than me and she wanted to make sure I was protected from the rain.
Thus began the longest 4 blocks of my life. I received glares from 3/4 the people we encountered on the street – double takes, hate filled looks, shock, disbelief – from the business man hurrying on his way, the white tattooed and pierced girl leaning against a building, the tall African American valet at a swanky hotel, couples and singles, young and old.
We finally arrived at our destination and went inside. Two hours later as we prepared to leave I looked at her and said, “Ok, you carried the umbrella here and I AM carrying it back. That was the worst walk of my life.” She looked at me confused and said, “Well, if you feel so strongly about it, by all means, carry the umbrella.” I proceeded to tell her my experience of our walk and after just a minute or two it dawned on her. She hadn’t noticed a single look, a single glare. She had simply been holding an umbrella for a friend.
You see, the problem was my friend who was holding the umbrella for me, is African American. Out of the goodness of her heart she wanted to make sure her friend was dry and did the polite thing, hold an umbrella for her friend. Instead we learned a big lesson.
We learned that maybe we haven’t come as far as we need to in this country. As I related the story, I then shared how I had never been the object of that kind of dislike before. My Quaker ancestors broke the rules of religious pacifism they lived under to reportedly use their barn as a stop on the Underground Railroad. I grew up in a world of “all men created equal” and it didn’t require me growing up in an ethnically diverse area. I grew up in the PA country and I grew up in Upstate NY. I lived in places that were not ethnically diverse and yet I grew up knowing the color of your skin means nothing in terms of your value. I didn’t mind holding the umbrella for my friend, but my friend, like me, didn’t see skin color. She saw a friend she wanted to help.
A little piece of innocence died that day. I’m sad. I’m sad that MY skin color ruined a perfectly lovely walk and chat. I’m sad that my kids are growing up in a world where who’s holding the umbrella still matters. I can’t remember a thing we talked about in those 4 blocks. All I can remember is that long walk, wishing I could disappear. But you know what else I remember? I remember our conversation on the way back. I remember our laughter as I clumsily held that umbrella. Truly, I do stink at holding umbrellas but she let me hold the umbrella so that I could walk in peace.
I say a little bit of innocence died but I don’t mean to say I have never felt racism. I have been in other countries and felt it, I have been in this country and felt it. I have felt it towards friends I have been with and toward me for friends I have been with. I’ve watched my sister take it from white people and from Asian people simply because she didn’t let ethnicity stop her. She married the man she loved. I’ve been called gringo and cracker and if you think those words don’t matter, look them up. I have walked through life and been made to feel that because it doesn’t happen to me every day of my life it doesn’t matter. I have been made to feel because my skin is white it doesn’t matter. But here’s the thing, IT DOES. It matters no matter your skin tone. It matters no matter where you are or who you are. YOUR WORDS MATTER. So next time you want to tell a ‘Polish joke’, a ‘black joke’, a ‘blond joke’ or a ‘white joke’, or any number of jokes that make ANY ONE the butt of your joke, stop and think. It’s not always so funny on the other side.
I pray that someday in this country it won’t matter which hand is holding the umbrella. That people won’t look at a picture and judge without knowing the story. As I end I am reminded of a song we sang in Sunday School and the phrase that sticks in my mind…..
O be careful little mouth what you say
O be careful little mouth what you say
There’s a Father up above
And He’s looking down in love
So, be careful little mouth what you say
My friend Janeane’s side of it – Two Friends in the Rain or Racism in Action