The Strangeness of the Universe – You Can’t Escape

When I asked Facebook what I should write about the first person to respond was Jon Colman. He said that I should talk about the strangeness of the universe, he was quickly followed by someone that wanted me to talk about my ancestry. To my mind these two have a clear crossover, because I can talk about them in the same story.

You Can’t Escape What You Look Like

No matter what you do you can never escape what you look like. You can change what you look like, but you can never escape the assumptions that come with your appearance. I have a beard and tattoos. Some people like that, some people don’t. I can shave my beard, and laser off my tattoos, but that won’t change the fact that some people will like it and some won’t.

You Don’t Actually Know What You Look Like

When I was in second grade I learned this lesson: you don’t know what you look like. As a young squirt I was bright, attentive, and gregarious, and to my teacher (Ms. Sullivan) the icing on theses qualities was that I was black. Because I am black, like her, she had quite a bit of affection for me and pride in having me in her class.

When it came time for parent/teach conferences she was excited to meet the rest of this bright, black family. The next day when Ms. Sullivan saw me I was no longer a black boy–I was a BROWN boy. Nothing had changed about me: I was still seven years-old, bright, attentive, and gregarious; hell, I was still the same color (two-parts burnt umber, one-part burnt sienna). From that point forward my attractive warm brown looked like mud in her eyes.

I was no longer medium-skinned black boy to my teacher, I was a half-white-mongrel.  She didn’t really care what made up that half of me, it could have been Scottish, Swedish, it even could have been Brazilian, all she cared about was that it wasn’t acceptable.

In part this was the formative moment in why I have tattoos, piercings, and a beard. During what I like to think of as my quarter-life crisis I decided that my outside was going to look like my inside. I can’t ever change the fact that other people make assumptions, but I can make myself comfortable in my skin.

So, Where Do You Go From Here?

Always dress comfortably; you will make your best impression. One of my high school friends got most of her dates by going to the mall in sweatpants, because that is when she attracted the right kind of people. When you are comfortable you are confident, wear things that make you feel like the best version of you whether that is flats or heels, t-shirt or dress shirt. Don’t invest in accessories that you won’t maintain:

  • Don’t grow a beard unless you are going to keep it trimmed.
  • Don’t buy cheap eye-glasses.
  • If you paint your nails keep them nice.
  • Do one make-up trick well instead of several half-assed.

Learn to talk to people. I know that this is scary for introverts, but honestly the only way to escape the pandemic prejudice of other people caricature of you is to break the ice. Polite introductions are a good start:

  • Tell strangers what your first name is when you ask them a question.
  • Choose something about yourself that you are comfortable sharing with people, even strangers.
  • Do your best to be appropriate to your venue.

Sadly, we all live under this weird tyranny of familiarity. That is one of the biggest factors in bigotry, not knowing anyone from a particular group. If you represent yourself authentically and offer to exchange familiarity (even small ones) you will make the universe a little less strange.

10 thoughts on “The Strangeness of the Universe – You Can’t Escape”

  1. The story about Ms Sullivan was one I heard soon after I met you.. I remember when I was young (probably about 10 or 11) and lived in a very homogenous town (Holdredge Nebraska) where most of the people had sur names like mine…Nelson,Larson,Johnson etc., I told my dad that the best way to solve the “race” issue was for everyone to intermarry. That was long before I met mom and you….Don’t actually remember what my dad said but the idea has never really left me. Thanks Carlos for sharing the Ms. Sullivan story.

    1. Empirically I agree with you on the mixed marriage thing. I think that the more that people get to see that what people look like on the outside isn’t an indication of their humanity the better off we will be. I think it is important for people who grow up in the city to actually live for awhile in the woods, and vice versa, even though it is scary.

      We need to have at least passing familiarity with situations that are not our own, that way we at least have to acknowledge the plausibility of things we hear about people we don’t know.

  2. So, I don’t need to feel guilty about insisting your father join me for the parenting conference. Having a white mother was the issue, not the black father. Maybe I should have stayed home and let your dad go alone. 🙂 I like what you learned from it.

    1. Yeah, in that case it would have been best to let dad go alone. It might have even been better if only you had gone. The reality of life is that it wold have happened eventually. It is tough for a 7-year-old to understand that stuff, but, by the time I was in high school the reality had set in that I was always walking a thin line.

      Most of the time when I met black women/girls they were perfectly accepting that I didn’t get to choose my parentage, but they were not happy about most of my dating practices.

      1. That was Dad’s point. Seeing us together just undid her. I should have known better. It was amazing what mean things she did to you! To punish your parents!

        1. That is an interesting interpretation. I always saw it as she was punishing me for not being what she thought I was.

          1. You were an innocent victim. How does one explain that to a 7 year old? How will you handle it with Rockford?

          2. I’ll tell him that some humans are assholes. But, you still have to treat them like humans.

          3. In retrospect, I think that very bright little boy would have understood if I had explained that,sadly, Ms Sullivan may be angry because she thought you had two parents who are black like her but your mother is white and she doesn’t like that. I should have said that some black women have a problem about black men marrying white women & I am very sorry that she is taking it out on you.

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