It was my favorite carry-on suitcase. A decade ago, it served me well all the way to India and back. So when the fabric ripped, I didn’t want to throw it out – but the luggage repair shop’s quote was outrageous. I felt very pleased with my ingenious solution: one large needle, some dental floss, and ten minutes later, my suitcase was travel-worthy again.
In contrast, Michelle’s carry-on looked sleek, sporty and new. “Will you be embarassed to be seen with me?” I joked.
She considered. “To tell you the truth, it would bother me if it were mine. But it’s okay if it’s yours.
Ever diplomatic and respectful, Michelle would never tell me what to do. But I also didn’t want to make her uncomfortable. So I decided to look further into this difference of ours. Was it simply a personality quirk, or was there something more?
Michelle and I are soulmates from different backgrounds. She’s African American and Christian, while I’m white and Jewish. On the surface, we’re from similar social classes – her father a lawyer, mine a doctor – but our families’ approaches to money were dramatically different. During my growing-up years, my father threw his money around flamboyantly, while Michelle’s father closely guarded his. Yet my family never took vacations, whereas Michelle’s family traveled frequently, always staying in 5-star hotels.
How do our race, class, ethnic group and religion affect the ways we think, feel and perceive? Obviously, there is no simple answer to this question; all of us are formed by many factors, both external and internal. There is tremendous diversity within every race, class and ethnic background – and even within a single family, siblings often emerge with very different attitudes. It’s always problematic to assume that anyone will have certain preferences or points of view “because” of their background – yet it’s also unrealistic to imagine that our backgrounds play no part in shaping our experience.
Decades ago, the African-American lesbian feminist poet Pat Parker wrote a classic poem titled, “For the White Person Who Wants to Know How To Be My Friend.” Part of the poem read, “First, you must forget that I’m Black. Second, you must never forget that I’m Black.” This poem comes to my mind often when I run into differences between Michelle and me.
“My parents cared a great deal about how luggage looked,” Michelle reflects now.
“Do you think that was partly because of race?”
I know enough to understand that this wasn’t just a personality quirk on Michelle’s parents’ part; it was likely a way of staying safe. In a racist world, it’s dangerous to be a scruffy-looking African American. (Would Trayvon Martin have been less likely to get shot if he’d been wearing a business suit, or maybe creased chinos and an alligator shirt, instead of a hoodie?)