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The Surface of the Deep

By Yvette Johnson

I can still remember the first time I read Snow White.  I was about nine years old when my parents bought a big green book with a tapestry-like design on the cover called “Fairy Tale Classics”.  In our San Diego home we had a formal dining room that my sister and I rarely ventured into.  My mother had paid top dollar to have a design of navy blue, beige, and burgundy stripes hung over each window and then to have the same fabric upholstered onto each of the large cherry wood, high backed chairs that surrounded the dining table.  One of the chairs was pushed up against a wall in a nook between a large dark wood buffet and a cabinet.  On a warm and lazy afternoon when there was nothing on TV and I was tired of running around in the yard, I picked up that big green book, pressed it to my chest and climbed into the chair that rested against the wall.  I curled my legs up under me, spread the book across my thighs and began to read. 

As I read Snow White, I can still remember feeling that I was doing more than reading a story.  In the delicate curve of each letter, in the black print that boldly stood out against the stark white paper, I was searching for something.  I read each word carefully, and each time I turned the page I became more and more aware that I was not finding what I was looking for. 
What was I looking for?  I was searching for a piece of me.  I was looking for a crumb of recognition with which to connect.  I too dreamed of falling in love with a great prince.  Unfortunately, Snow White seemed to be loved simply because she was “white as snow”.   The mirror even goes so far as to tell the evil queen that she is not as beautiful as Snow White because she is not as fair. 

I closed the book.  I sat there, staring at the navy blue, beige, and burgundy fabric feeling that I had just been denied entrance into a place which I longed to inhabit.  These feelings were too profound for me to process at the time, but I have always remembered that moment as a turning point for me.  In the weeks preceding my reading of Snow White I’d begun to notice how almost all of the people on TV were white, all the people in the magazines were white, all the people at the grocery store, at the park, in the cars we passed on the road, and all of my friends and teachers at school were white. 

In that moment, on a warm summer day in our big quiet house I began to perceive that I was living in a world that was not made for me.  I began to believe that there was a set of dreams that only young white girls could pursue.  Although I too shared these dreams, it seemed that they were not accessible to me because I was not the right shade.  There was no mistaking it, my deep, chestnut brown skin would never, ever be fair. 

I grew up in an all-white, affluent neighborhood.  I was the only black kid in all of my classes until I went into the sixth grade.  Like a lot of other blacks my age I was called a “n-----“ in school and kids always seemed to have a comment ready that highlighted our differences.  When I took my breakfast on the bus a boy explained to his friend that grits were like mashed potatoes for black people.  Once on a church camping trip I was combing my hair when a girl who looked like the prototype for Barbie Doll cried out with utter disgust, “Ugh, it’s falling out!” as my coarse black hair came out in the comb. 

My parents finally started having me bused to schools in black, underprivileged neighborhoods.  There, with my perfect English and love of Phil Collins and Aerosmith, I was accused of trying to act white.  It didn’t help matters that each of my parents drove their own Mercedes Benz.  The kids at my school loved rap, knew drug dealers and gang members, wore gold chains, had relatives who had been shot, parents in prison and they fiercely hated the police.  I didn’t get their jokes, I’d never heard of the chips they liked to eat or the grape drinks they gulped.  I was stunned into a perpetual state of shyness. 

So, every morning from kindergarten until I graduated in my senior year, I dreaded going to school.  Sometimes it was because I wasn’t a good student, or I didn’t have designer clothes, or I didn’t have anyone to eat with at lunchtime.  However, the one thing that never changed year after year was the anxiety that came from being so vastly different from everyone else around me.   I was different because I was black, then I was different because I wasn’t black enough.   

As I grew older I tried to let go of my obsession with being racially and culturally different.  I figured out how to connect with people on a variety of levels not dictated by color.  I fell in love, moved to Arizona and got married.  I thought I was cured.  Then I moved to Ahwatukee, a predominantly white, upper middle class suburb in Phoenix.  I moved there because I had given birth to my first child and I wanted him to grow up in a neighborhood that reminded me of the one I’d grown up in.  This is how far removed I was from the hurt I had lived through as a child.    

As I began to get to know other mommies in the neighborhood I was struck by something.  They were all white.  When I went to the grocery store, when I went to the park, when I went to the cleaners, when I glanced into the cars I passed on the road I saw that almost everyone was white. 

A few years ago I was out with my Ahwatukee friends and I caught a glimpse of myself in the reflection of the restaurant window.  I was the only dark being in a sea of white.  I suddenly felt aware of how loud I was, how my clothes were too bright, my lipstick too red and my jokes too crass.  My hair was sticking up in a way that white hair never does.  As I smoothed my hair down and dabbed my lipstick, I realized that I am far from cured.

Looking back I can see that the formation of my identity was greatly influenced by the stigma of being racially and culturally different.  People often say that color is only skin deep.  For me, the color of my skin is the surface of the deep.  It is a layer beneath which lies an unplumbed sea of anxiety, hurt and shame. 

Today I have two sons of my own, and I am determined to make sure that they don’t feel like aliens in the world they live in.  I want to make sure that they have every opportunity to construct an identity that includes, but is not bogged down by race.  The question I wrestle with is this: was it the racial bullying that made me so conflicted or was it because there were so few people of color in my young world with whom I could identify?  As children construct their own identities and as they come to perceive their place in the world how important is it for them to see images that resemble who they are? 

In our routine of going to the park, the library, and to music classes, my sons and I can go weeks without seeing anyone of color.  I don’t know if this will matter to them or not.  Sometimes I catch myself going to great lengths to expose them to black people.  Then I wonder if they will grow up with issues of race simply because of my meddling. 

I recently bought a preschool curriculum for my oldest son.  It included several rich, funny, thoughtful books for young children.  One of them was a book that contained a collection of classic fairy tales like Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Jack and the Beanstalk and many others.  Each page was filled with beautiful, fresh, shiny white faces.  I gave it away. 

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