The Uncle Tom in My Family

Uncle Tomas was the youngest, the attention seeker, of the three brothers but also the least attractive, resembling J.J. of Good Times, with false teeth, losing his real ones when he jumped out of a third-floor apartment window to escape a burning building; the new set of teeth did not keep him from laughing and being the talker, the boaster, in the family; he would argue about everything from who’s the best athlete (Bird over Magic) to presidential elections, usually siding with the Republicans; he was secure in his abilities and believed that hard work would get him places and it did. It took a while, tho. Not gaining admission to a U.S. medical school, he drove a yellow cab for a year or two to finance his medical education in Colombia, a place where he also met his future wife, a woman with looks, in his own words, that would not attract adulterous men. Only a man with deep rooted insecurities would give such thoughts on marriage. Despite his ambitions and book smarts, Tomas contextualized important life decisions through a racial lens, undervaluing his self worth along the way. It took him about six years to achieve the American dream and he was no longer Uncle Tomas, he was now Doctor Tomas. 

“Oh, I see one. And here’s another! Ooooooh this is great!!” said Uncle Tomas in glee referring to the white folks strolling through this gentrified tree-lined block in Bedford Stuyvesant. He was surveying a brownstone in the Stuyvesant Heights section of this neighborhood with historical landmark designation. As Blacks crossed his path during our walk, he became less enthused and scanned them up and down to see if they were the right kind of blacks that would not scare away the whites that were moving in droves to the area. “You see, Jay” Tomas whispered to avoid others from hearing his racially charged views. “The only way to preserve this investment is to make sure more of them keep coming here.” He continues. “So we must give them what they want in this brownstone; give them exposed bricks, fireplace, stainless steel appliances, new hardwood floors. We’ll give them everything. We need them. Our property will be safe with them. They will pay more rent. So let’s do this deal.”

With his medical license in hand, Dr. Tomas was in a rush to leave Brooklyn. “I am not gonna live with these people who want to rob me and take my hard earned dollar.” He said, referring to his neighbors in East Flatbush, a crime-infested Brooklyn neighborhood where many honest working-class Caribbean and American Blacks reside. “I’m gonna buy my house on Long Island.” He added, some sort of affirmation that he has arrived, that he’s earned a one-way ticket out of the black and brown hood, a move that would validate his newfound status; he wanted to live among whites, regardless of their economic or professional status.

He viewed white skin in a multiracial country as a status in itself; this is not a view limited to my Uncle Tomas; it is a recurring immigrant theme that I have seen firsthand, overheard in back office chatter and read in journals and news articles. Koreans don’t want to live with blacks but they will dry clean their dirty clothes in black neighborhoods. Same with the Dominicans, they will operate their bodegas shielded with bullet proof plexiglass with a portal to receive black people’s money; sell them overpriced milk and food which exceeds the expiration date; but will not want us as neighbors. Arabs don’t want blacks in their leased yellow cabs to avoid driving them to nicer and pricier homes than the driver’s own residence. I have seen these slights and have experienced them, myself; these rejections reveal the falsehood that we live in a harmonious global community, the opposite of the TV images of large crowds we recently witnessed chanting USA, USA when Howard (yes, a black man) made record-making saves to keep the team from being slaughtered by Belgium. This love fest exists only for the cameras, my friends.

And so, my Non-American Black uncle takes his chances with the Bedford Stuyvesant investment but would not dare live there even with the sprinkling number of white folks who call the area home; he choose to live on Long Island with white neighbors who will not likely rob him as the crime stats are lower there than in East Flatbush; he gambles that the community will embrace him because he is different from the blacks that he left behind; that his professional credentials and well groomed children will be viewed as the good black in his neighbors’ eyes. However, Uncle Tomas fails to see that the community that he so much wants to be a part of may limit their sight to his skin color alone and that their collective soccer love fest was only a temporary bliss that won’t blind them from imagining perceived differences that don’t exist. My uncle will also be competing with the Asians, Latinos and Arabs who, too, dream to live with these same white neighbors instead of neighborhoods with black and brown people. It seems this race for community acceptance and inclusion will be measured by the degree of lightness of our skin instead of the intangible qualities that make us the exceptional people that we strive to be.

The Interracial Date with the Jewish Girl…

Whenever I go on a date with a white girl, I generally pop the question “have you ever dated a black guy”?  It generally catches them by surprise.  Some would pause, for a few seconds, before responding.  Others would say does it really matter and I would let it go, knowing full well that a second date was unlikely, because race does matter.  (Stay tuned for a future posting on this point).   And so, I asked Jennifer and she said, “yes.”  “Oh, good” I said, feeling instantly comfortable to speak more freely, without the need for much cultural translation.  Certainly, her prior experience with a black man does not make her knowledgeable of the vast diversity of the culture; but it does suggest that I am less likely to be an experiment; a novelty for the moment.

It’s usually the day after these interracial dates that I begin to question my choice of women; wouldn’t life be much easier and predictable to date someone within my race; not be concerned if the other person gets you.  It would; big life decisions would be influenced by family customs of a singular culture; children would face less confusion about their racial identity.  Many put in motion a series of life routines focused on normalcy – secure employment, good neighborhood and favorite meals.  Most of my married friends and family chose their mates on those terms, and I do not reject them for it but let’s be real: half end in divorce.  Their choices alone did not doom their relationships; it’s the absence of a strong commitment to endure that failed them.  I choose to embrace the challenges of a diverse relationship because it places a burden on me; to make a relationship work despite the odds; to take a hard look at what keeps us together; to reject the notion that we are a good match simply because we share a racial identity.

The night was full of conversation beginning with the professional life summary to the friends in our circles and sizing up the list of leisure activities that entertain us.  She liked sailing, yoga and the theater. Mine were rooftop bars, dance classes and novels.  As for our favorite authors, Jennifer said, “Sedaris, Chabon and Murakami” and I offered “Junot, Zadie, Adichie” and for diversity sake added “Franzen and Wallace” (the Infinite Jest one).  Neither one of us had read each other’s favorite books but we either had a copy or heard of them.  Now that we passed the literacy test, we revisited the interracial subject again.   Jennifer goes on to say, “about half of my past relationships have been with another race….Does that mean I have a type,” she laughed.  I said, “yes” in my deadpan expression as I reflected on my own dating stats,  20% white, 60% Non-American Black, 10% Hispanic or Asian and 5% American Black.  I kept those numbers to myself while Jennifer, fully engaged in defending her family’s reaction to her dating life, continued, “My parents are used to my dating now.  My sister is the long holdout.  Whenever I tell her that I met someone, she would say, ‘let me guess. He’s not Jewish…. and not white, right’? I would reply ‘yes and yes.’  She meant no harm with these questions…just caring for her little sister, that’s all.” Jennifer adds.  Then, she tells me about the major rift she had with the entire family during a long relationship with a Black Muslim from Northern Africa.  A White Jewish woman dating a Black Muslim man…that Jennifer has no fear.

Those who have not dated outside their race or even explored different shades of color other than their own may view this attraction as solely a physical one; the type that’s laced with fetishes and overt sexuality.  Yes,that exists too.  Earlier, in my bad boy days, I hooked up with white women because they looked different; and if they had a small waist and a big ass, it was a fantasy fulfilled.  I have pals who shared with me their “bunny rabbits” stories of sexual exploits,  all porno flick material.  I also know a few West Village SATC types who ventured uptown to the “safe” Ginny’s Supper Club to get their alternative cultural experience.  In all these instances, sex is the equalizer.  However, when dating for the long haul, for a more purposeful objective, despite the racial makeup, the physical attraction is simply the admission ticket; one great performance may get you rave reviews; but the long enduring run requires much more.    I choose to explore outside my race to solely broaden, not limit, my options to find a fulfilling relationship with greater lasting power.  I am willing to forgo the predictability of the known to freely pursue something akin to the feeling that no one else will do – but her.

For a midweek date, I thought two and half hours of continuous conversation with the occasional physical gestures of arm touching and fingers twiddling in the hair was a sign that we hit it off.  I do have some lingering doubts, however, and none relating to race. Jennifer is a few years away from the age where childbirth is risky.  This is definitely a deal breaker since I do see my future family life including a child or two and adoption is not something that I want to do.  The big question is whether to go out on a second date with her when this issue looms over me or move on.  I will have to give this some further thought. In the meantime, I have several other dates (both interracial and within the race) scheduled in the coming days, and I promise myself to be an attentive listener in search of expression that inspires commitment and longevity.

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