Florida by Adrienne Harris
About a year and a half ago we took a family trip to Florida. It was our first major trip as a family of four and it was a little stressful. I'm not a great traveler. I never have been. I get anxious about being away from home, even though I enjoy new places. But Florida is not a new place. I've been there many times before. My mother grew up in Miami so we visited her parents there several times during my childhood, and Eric's mom lives there so we've visited her several times as well in the last few years. We always have a nice time. The beaches are nice. We go there to see people we love....and sometime, in the future, I hope to go to Harry Potter World.
On this last trip to Florida, Aaron was only 4 months old and spent most of the time strapped to my body in an ergo or a solly baby wrap. We spent a few days in Boca Raton, where Eric's mom lives, and then we all drove to Tampa so we could attend (one of) my best friend's wedding. A day or so before the wedding I was walking into a Walmart with another friend with Aaron asleep in the ergo strapped to my chest. A woman exiting the Walmart with her very pregnant daughter or granddaughter approached us. She stopped my friend and said simply "Can I ask you a question? When you wash the baby's clothes do you use a special detergent or fabric softener?" My friend, who doesn't have kids, turned to me. I stepped forward and answered the woman's question. The woman looked at me, then back at my friend and then back at me. She wrinkled her nose. She turned up her chin, and then she walked away. It was strange. It was rude and it was confusing. "That was weird." I said as we continued into the store. My friend was quiet for a moment, then she said, "I think maybe she thought that you were my nanny." My friend is white. I am not. "Huh," I said. "I think you must be right."
My parents met at Antioch University in the mid 1960s. My mum was a white girl from Miami Florida, and my dad was a black boy from Washington DC. They knew each other for a couple of years before they started dating, but my mother says that the first time she laid eyes on my dad she knew that he would be hers someday. They dated around, though. My mum had to end a relationship with a man named Micheal because she knew it was getting too serious and she didn't want to marry him. My dad dated Elia Kazan's daughter for a short time (a family lore that I've always loved) but eventually they found each other and when grad school rolled around they applied to different schools and different programs but made sure that the schools and programs were close enough that they could still be together. I forget the timeline exactly, but it may have been my father's acceptance to the PHD program at Stanford that prompted a proposal before they moved across the country together. They married in a very small ceremony in upstate NY in 1970, only three years after the Supreme Court's decision in Loving Vs. Virginia made it legal to do so in all 50 states. In 1970 on 2% of marriages were bi-racial. My mum made her own wedding dress, and my dad wore a pink shirt and sideburns and a fu manchu mustache. They both smoked. From the few photos I've seen, it looked like a kickass wedding.
My sister and I, I recently learned, are a part of "The Loving Generation." I ashamed to admit that I didn't even know what that was, or that the Loving Generation was even a thing until a friend sent me the link to a documentary about it earlier this year. The Loving Generation is defined as people born to one parent who was classified as "white" and one parent who was classified as "colored" between the years of 1965-1985. Growing up in Monterey, CA, my sister was the only kid I knew who looked like me, and I can remember several instances of being called out for being "different." I remember kids asking me if I was adopted because I didn't look like my white mother. I remember a friend telling me that I couldn't dress up like Madonna for a "come as your favorite Pop Star" party because Madonna was white and blond and I was not. But mostly it was kids being kids, asking questions about things that seemed unfamiliar or confusing to them. I was never snubbed. I was never endangered. Around the fifth grade an older boy said something once, something racist and terrible and violent. Something that I'm not sure he fully understood. I don't think he really meant it. I think he was a kid trying something on to see if it fit. To see if throwing racists slurs around felt cool, but what do I know? I can't remember what happened then, exactly. Did I tell my mum? Or a teacher? Or did someone else hear him and report it? Did the other kids understand that what he said was wrong and horrible? He was forced to write a letter of apology. That's all I remember. I don't remember his name. I didn't keep the letter. I don't know what kind of person he grew up to be.
When I was trying to make it as an actress in my late teens and early twenties, I still found it difficult to look different. TV and Commercial casting agents kept claiming that my look was just about to be "in" but I didn't get cast much. At 17 I had a meeting with an agent in Hollywood who gave me a long lecture about how un-castable I was because I didn't look white and I didn't look black. It was my first major professional meeting. It had been set up by a friend of my dad's who's daughter was an actress represented by this agent. We drove from Monterey to LA for the meeting. I was very excited. My mum waited for me outside and after a long conversation that could be described as an argument with the agent about race and looks and the future of Hollywood (for a 17 year old, I really held my own in that meeting) I thanked the agent and left and met my mother outside. Once safely in the car I cried and told her everything. She held me and comforted me. She told me I was talented and special and all the nice things a mother should say. But she didn't tell me that the agent was wrong, because she didn't know. We weren't the industry professionals. Maybe she was right, as shitty as that felt. Then we went to see a movie at Mann's Chinese Theatre. I remember watching Carrie Fisher on the screen and wishing that I looked like her. My mum told me later that she didn't sleep at all that night after the meeting. Neither did I.
A year later I moved to New York to go to NYU. New York was certainly more diverse and for the first time in my life I did meet other people who looked like me. I met a lot of other people of color and it was exciting. I blended in amongst the throngs of people just trying to catch the N/R train downtown. When I was called out, it was usually complimentary, or just some dude telling me to "smile more," and everyone woman, no matter what color her skin has heard that one.
I eventually moved to LA, despite that agents advice, although I wasn't acting much at that point, but writing instead. LA is the land of the beautiful blonds but by that point there was a lot more diversity going on as well. Shondaland was blooming. Halle Berry and Denzel Washington had both won Academy Awards a few years before. CBS and NBC had diversity writing fellowships. I was developing a project and it was often flaunted that the writer (me) was a woman of color because that was a desirable thing.
While I was pregnant with Cylas I often wondered what he would look like. Eric is mostly Italian with some German and other stuff. He's a white guy with olive toned skin and the biggest, bluest eyes. He is often stopped by both men and women so that they can comment on his eyes. They are beautiful and he and his two brothers all have them. So did his father. The Mindel eyes. I wondered if Cylas would have blue eyes like his dad or brown eyes like me. I wondered if he would look black, or white, or somewhere in between. When he was born, he was a just a smoosh with dark hair. His eyes were that dark swirly blue that most babies' eyes are, but they didn't stay blue. They turned brown quickly. He has his mother's eye color. But as he got older, his hair has lightened. His skin has lightened too and, to be perfectly honest, he looks like a white kid. By the time he was 18 months, he was practically blond.
In late February of 2012, almost two years before Cylas was born, Trayvon Martin was shot and killed walking to his father's house in Sanford Florida. He was 17 years old. He was targeted by his shooter because he was a black boy in a hooded sweatshirt and that made him suspicious. He was unarmed. He was walking home from a convenience store. When my dad was in college, he embarked on a road trip with a few friends. A black male and two white females. At some point along their cross country drive they were waved through a police check point only to arrive at a second checkpoint minutes later to find police shotguns pointed at their vehicle. They were ordered out of their car. They were handcuffed and detained. They had done nothing wrong, but the police found it suspicious that these two young black men would be in a car with two white women. There are dozens of stories about black people (mostly men) being violently targeted by police and citizens alike, because they were deemed suspicious or problematic because they were black.
As the mother of two young sons I think about this a lot. It makes me feel sad that I sometimes have the thought that Cylas might have gotten a "free pass." I want him to know and understand what it is to be a black person in America. I want him to be proud of his heritage, and I want him to understand the history of his people, but since he doesn't look black he will most likely evade the negative aspects that can go along with being a black person in America. Aaron, who looks a lot more like me, may have some very different experiences in the wider world. He may have to be more careful, and it pains me to still have to say that. Every mother worries about their kids, but some mothers have to worry about different things.
A few weeks ago a white man shot and killed a black man in parking lot in Clearwater Florida. In the days following the shooting, no charges had been filed against the shooter because the shooting was being called justified under Florida's Stand Your Ground law. When my mother heard that news, she said, "I don't think you should go to Florida." I kind of thought she was joking as we had a trip planned for the following week. "Why?" I asked. "Because, someone might shoot you because you're a black woman" she said. We went to Florida anyways and had a lovely time, but I thought often about my mother and her worry over my safety.
Florida isn't the problem. There are amazing, open minded, wonderful, caring people living all over Florida. And there are small minded, racist, cruel, violent people living all over the United States. There are many here where I live too, even though I've never had any run-ins. That recent shooting in Clearwater did result in manslaughter charges being filed against the shooter. As I write this, he sits in jail. He didn't get away with murder, at least, not officially. Not yet. He will stand trial.
I started writing this post a couple of weeks ago, before our most recent trip to Florida. The trip went well. We had fun. The boys swam almost every day. Nana took them to Walmart and bought them a Christmas morning level of toys. They loved every second of the visit. Nothing negative to report. I have stumbled through my thoughts while attempting to write this post. I don't want to imply that I didn't find much success in acting only because I'm a person of color. Maybe I never auditioned well. Maybe I just wasn't what the casting people were looking for. Maybe I'm not as talented as I think I am! I'm not sure why that woman in Tampa seemed so offended that I answered the question she directed to my friend. I don't know for a fact that she thought the only reason that my white friend would be shopping with me is because I must have worked for her. I also don't want to imply that I only worry about my children because they are mixed race. Most of the time I don't even think about it. They are both kind, adorable, smart people. I worry more about making sure that they grow up being respectful to women than I do about them being the subject of racism. I like my writings and posts to be well organized editorials on some subject of my life, and this one is a scattered journal entry about the current state of race relations in my head, as a mother, as a woman, and as a person of color. I thought about not even posting this since I don't have a thought conclusion. My thoughts are muddy, and on going and shifting.
When I pick out books for my boys, when I chose dolls, and toys, I make sure that diversity is represented. I choose books like I Am So Brave, and The Snowy Day. When I got Cylas a baby doll before Aaron was born, I searched for a baby with darker skin and brown eyes because I assumed that Aaron would have those features and I was right. I want them to see themselves represented in the media they consume, and in their playthings. I don't want them to feel alone in the world the way that I often did. It's much easier to find these things now. Lots of people are thinking like me. I guess, I just always thought that by the time I had kids it wouldn't still feel like a task to find these toys, books and characters. I thought it would just be the way the world looked. I didn't think there would be protests like the one in Charlottesville last year. I didn't think that someone like Trump would be president. I didn't think that black teenagers in hoodies would still be shot walking home. Every mother worries, but some mothers still have to worry about different things.