Saturday, May 27, 2006

Black Dolly, White Dolly

Sharing the main stadium box with Jeanne, Camera, and me, at my invitation, were Stan Smith, his wife Marjory, and their daughter Logan. The two little girls were happy to see one another. During Wimbledon in June, they had renewed their friendship when we all stayed near each other in London. Now Logan, seven years old, had brought Camera a present. She had come with twin dolls, one for herself, one for Camera. A thoughtful gesture on Logan's part, and on her parents' part, no doubt. The Smiths are fine, religious people.

Then I noticed that Camera was playing with her doll above the railing of the box, in full view of the attentive network television cameras. The doll was the problem; or rather, the fact that the doll was conspicuously a blonde. Camera owns dolls of all colours, nationalities, and ethnic varieties. But she was now on national television playing with a blonde doll. Suddenly I heard voices in my head, the voices of irate listeners to a call-in show on some 'black format' radio station. I imagined insistent, clamorous callers attacking Jeanne, and me:
'Can you believe the doll Arthur Ashe's daughter was holding up at the AIDS benefit? Wasn't that a shame?'
'Is that brother sick or what? Somebody ought to teach that poor child about her true black self'
'What kind of role model is Arthur Ashe if he allows his daughter to be brainwashed in that way?'
'Doesn't the brother understand that he is corrupting his child's mind with notions about the superiority of the white woman? I tell you, I thought we were long past that!'

The voices became louder in my head. Despite the low humidity, I began to squirm in my seat. What should I do? Should I say, To hell with what some people might think? I know that Camera likes her blonde dolls, black dolls, brown dolls, Asian dolls, Indian dolls just about equally; I know that for a fact, because I have watched her closely. I have searched for signs of racial partiality in her, indications that she may be dissatisfied with herself, with her own colour. I have seen none. But I cannot dismiss the voices. I try always to live practically, and I do not wish to hear such comments on the radio. On the other hand, I do not want Logan's gift to be sullied by an ungracious response. Finally, I act.

'Jeanne,' I whisper, 'we have to do something.' 'About what?' she whispers back.
'That doll. We have to get Camera to put that doll down.' Jeanne takes one look at Camera and the doll and she understands immediately. Quietly, cleverly, she makes the dolls disappear. Neither Camera nor Logan is aware of any thing unusual happening. Smoothly, Jeanne has moved them on to some other distraction.

I am unaware if Margie Smith has noticed us, but I believe I owe her an explanation and I get up and go around to her seat. Softly I tell her why the dolls have disappeared. Marge is startled, dumbfounded.

'Gosh, Arthur, I never thought about that. I never ever thought about anything like that!' 'You don't have to think about it,' I explained. 'But it happens to us, in similar situations, all the time.' 'All the time?' She is pensive now.

'All the time. It's perfectly understandable. And it certainly, is not your fault. You were doing what comes naturally. But for us, the dolls make for a bit of a problem. All for the wrong reasons. It shouldn't be this way, but it is.'

I return to my seat, but not to the elation I had felt before I saw that blonde doll in Camera's hand. I feel myself becoming more and more angry. I am angry at the force that made me act, the force of racism in all its complexity, as it spreads into the world and creates defensiveness and intolerance among the very people harmed by racism. I am also angry with myself. I am angry with myself because I have just acted out of pure practicality, not out of morality. The moral act would have been to let Camera have her fun, because she was innocent of any wrongdoing. Instead, I had tempered with her innocence, her basic human right to act impulsively, to accept a gift from a friend in the same beautiful spirit in which it was given.
Deeply embarrassed now, I am ashamed at what I have done. I have made Camera adjust her behaviour merely because of the likelihood that some people in the African American community would react to her innocence foolishly and perhaps even maliciously. I know I am not misreading the situation. I would have had telephone calls that very evening about the unsuitability of Camera's doll.

Am I being a hypocrite? Yes, definitely, up to a point. I have allowed myself to give in to those people who say we must avoid even the slightest semblance of 'Eurocentric' influence. But I also know what stands behind the entire situation. Racism ultimately created the state in which defensiveness and hypocrisy are our almost instinctive responses, and innocence and generosity are invitations to trouble.

This incident almost ruined the day for me. That night, when Jeanne and I talked about the excitement of the afternoon, and the money that would go to AIDS research and education because of the event, we nevertheless ended up talking mostly about the incident of the dolls. We also talked about perhaps its most ironic aspect. In 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled against school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, some of the most persuasive testimony came from the psychologist Dr Kenneth Clark concerning his research on black children and their pathetic preference for white dolls over black. In 1992, the dolls are still a problem.

Once again, the shadow of race had fallen on me.

From Arthur Ashe's wonderful "Days Of Grace", a book I could quote till the cows come home. What a loss to America that man's death was. I think he should have let them play with the dolls - but then so did he, and that's why he was so angry.

Back blogging on Monday.

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