Twinkle and Ezra Need You to Get Your White Men
BY TWINKLE BURKE and EZRA HUBBARD
I’m not a teacher or a nurse, but I often play one on TV. See — producers and writers like to cast women of color as nurturers — teachers and nurses being the most popular forms in the acting world. Like the Modern Day Aunt Jemima — they are there to instruct and care-take.
This role seems to have permeated my life in the real world, as well. White people seem to gravitate to me for caretaking, instruction, and nurturing regardless of our relationship. I’ve begun to really look at all of the spaces and times where I’ve been forced into that role.
I don’t have an issue with it at work — it’s a gig — a well sometimes paying high profile gig that keeps me in the union and health insurance for my family. But privately — it feels as if the world — the white world — still expects women of color in general and me, in particular, to instruct or caretake, no matter where or when.
Like the time I’m sitting in a Red Lobster® in Hickory, NC, with my husband and our two-year-old son, Ezra. We are here visiting my husband’s family because my father-in-law, Ted, has been diagnosed with prostate cancer. I am truly weary — from caring for my 2-year-old while performing some emotional heavy lifting for my husband and deflecting my husband’s mother and 2 sisters' racist microaggressions.
I am wife weary. Mother weary. Race weary. Weary weary. And I refuse to cook in my mother in laws house for fear she’ll attack the kitchen with air freshener again. Apparently, the smells of flavor are offensive. All of these circumstances bring us to be sitting in a noisy back room of the Red Lobster, where I am acutely aware of being the only brown face in the place.
Not even the busboys or barbacks are people of color. I can feel everyone keeping me in their peripheral vision.
No matter. My off duty sign is lit. I’m not carrying the burden of race for anyone. I reach across the table and hand Ezra a cheddar Bay biscuit and look at my husband. He’s wiped out too, but we are finding respite in this crustacean chain restaurant. That’s when I notice him — a white man that looks to be almost a century old, staring at me. I look around. Yup — he’s staring at me. I offer a wan smile, and his blue eyes dance with intrigue. I tuck back into my salad only to see him teetering towards our table. What is he doing?
“Hello,” he says, towering over my child — “is he yours?” He waves his wrinkled hand over Ezra’s head and positions himself next to Ezra.
I am stunned. What could he possibly want? Brad instinctively puts his arm around Ezra in his high chair.
“Excuse me?” Brad says in his soft southern drawl.
He is ever the Southern gentleman, who will never raise his voice in public as he politely tells you to go ‘F___ yourself”.
“Is this child yours?”
“Yes, he is our son,” Brad says.
“Oh, good!” The man says as he pulls the chair out beside Ezra.
I look over Ezra’s head at this man’s family, who are silently observing this intrusion.
“Come and get your old white man!” I am saying telepathically to the 40 something-year-old sons. Come. And. Get. Him.
“Come and get him NOW!”
But it doesn’t work. The son turns his attention back to his Surf and Turf without giving me another glance.
Here is the height of white entitlement — believing it’s okay to come and sit, uninvited, at my table and demand that I stop nurturing my family and teach you something,
It reminds me of when a white homeschool mom says that the “Hate” in the young adult novel “The Hate U Give” is fake.
I tell her the hate is not fake, that it’s all too real. When she puts her chin in her hands, elbows on the table, and, in her school girl stance, says, “Teach me,” I say ‘No.” I turn away and shut her down.
“NO, I will not teach you,” I tell the homeschool mom.
“So — being an interracial couple, I’d like you to answer something for me,” the old man says.
My eyes shoot daggers into this man. Answer what??!? Can’t I eat?
“My nurse, she’s a colored woman like yourself,” he continues, spittle falling from his lips, “and she says that when the woman is older in a mixed couple, the child always ends up being a male. Are you older than him?” He tosses his head in Brad’s direction.
It has me thinking, is this my job? Is it the burden of responsibility for me and other people of color to teach white people? Haven’t we done enough?
“I beg your pardon?” I say. I am seething. I extend my arms across the table in Ezra’s direction. He reaches for me.
“My nurse is from the Caribbean, and she said that if you’re older than the male, the offspring will be male. I just want to test the theory.”
What the F___???!?
Look, I’m not a nurse or a teacher, I play one on TV, but I am about to teach this older man so hard he’s going to need a nurse.
I look at this man’s family again. I can tell they are listening to this exchange, but since I haven’t stabbed great-grandpa with a steak knife, they assume he’s safe and make no attempt to intervene.
“Sir,” I tensely let slip through my teeth, “I assure you that your nurse’s theory is just that, a theory, or some old wives tale from whatever Caribbean island she’s from.”
“Oh, no! She told me it’s the truth! She’s seen it happen time and time again. So I want to know if you are older than the father?”
I don’t remember what Brad said to get him to leave. I was beyond words and just wanted the racist, ignorant fool away from my son. I do remember him teetering back to his table and my ears becoming hot.
Why did this man think it was ok to interrupt our meal? To take a seat at our table? To interrogate me and expect instruction?
I realize that being Black means a lot of different things. It’s choosing not to be a nurturing Mammy; to embrace Betye Saar’s machine-gun-toting Aunt Jemima archetype. It’s the declaration that I’ll nurture you on my time in my way IF I want.
Being Black is understanding that sometimes, a lot of times, ALL the time, I don’t need to talk about my Blackness. Black people don’t sit behind closed doors talking about our Blackness.
There ARE other topics, and because we are talking — it’s Black talking.
Being Black is so much more than any preconceived notions that I cannot define what it means because it just IS.
It’s the Sun and the Moon and the stars. It’s loving my white husband. It’s driving my car. It’s loving James Taylor and Lyle Lovett and not responding to you when you ignorantly say, “What are YOU doing listening to that?”
It’s not denying any part of me that wants to do anything, go anywhere, be anywhere. It’s not having to teach you about Being Black because you’ve dug your head in the sand for 40 plus years.
Recently, my new favorite line is “I’m auditioning to be a nurse — cause I’m a Black Woman!” Everyone laughs and then thinks about it.
Being Black is not one thing. It’s EVERYTHING and sometimes nothing at all. Nothing, as in. It’s a cool breeze. It’s sunlight on the leaves and water. It’s everything and nothing at all. Get it? You can’t have it.
The summer I’m 11 years old, I’m walking home with a friend and his 9-year old brother. We are running around and laughing, having a good time. It’s around 8:45, but it’s still light out. We step aside to let a car pass. Except it doesn’t. It stops right in front of us and turns on its high beams, almost blinding us. “What the hell?” We start walking around when I hear. “Step in front of the car, please.” Flustered, I look around at my friend and his little brother. They’re both white and have confused looks on their faces. A police officer — a bald white guy, steps out of the vehicle. In the pit of my stomach, fear starts bubbling up, and a lump in my throat forms. “Oh, god.” I can see my friend's brother has a fearful expression, but my friend has a calm, almost casual, look on his face. “Why isn’t he scared?” I think just as I see my mother and their dad walking towards us. “Oh, thank god.”
I take a sigh of relief.
I remember hearing a comedian talking about being mixed. You can only be black or mixed. Never white. I’ve always known I am black and mixed. I never have a problem because that’s just the way I am. Then I see a particular episode of Black-ish where the mom is talking about growing up mixed. She has identity problems in school, and everywhere else she goes. I wonder why I don’t have those problems, and it gets me thinking. Am I not black enough? Am I too black? Am I too white? I don’t realize I’m doing it, but I try to act white and never fall into the black stereotype. I don’t listen to rap music. I listened to Taylor Swift, and Katy Perry, and pop music. I don’t use much slang. I’m afraid of a stereotype that I don’t even know much about yet. My mom tells me stories about people saying she talks white. Do I talk white?
While I am trying not to be too black, I am also trying not to fall into that white stereotype of being ignorant and thinking I know everything. I feel weird about fitting in because of something as small as the music I listen to.
My white friends don’t understand what it’s like to be black. They say things like “bro” to sound black. When I refuse to go into a locked park at night, they say things like, “What are the cops going to do?” “Shoot me,” I think.
I want to stop worrying about how I’m perceived and what I can and can’t be shot for. I want not to have a small panic attack every time I see a police car or those high beams. Every time I see a badge.
The officer asks for our names. My friends say theirs, and I manage to say, “My name is Ezra Hubbard.”
Their dad comes up from behind the car next to us. “Hello officer, how can we help you?”
“There was a call reporting a disturbance in the neighborhood.”
I think to myself — What? We were just playing. Who called the police? I glance at the houses around us.
“I’m going to need your date of birth and names.” My mom and their dad give him their names. My mother looks a little rattled. Is she ok?
“Can you tell me what was happening here?”
I remember saying, “We were just playing.” I was so stunned someone would call the cops and scared, I don’t remember the rest. Why would someone report kids playing? It was because I’m black. Goddamnit. God, I’m tired.
As I get older, my identity issues deepen. A friend of color asks me why Black Panther isn’t one of my favorite movies. I say, “Because it isn’t that good. There are flaws in the writing and CGI. I still like it; it’s just overrated.” She says, “c’mon, you gotta represent.” It makes me feel like I’m not black enough. And, all my upstate friends are white; who do they see me as?
I know that I’m me and that I’m no less black or white, no matter what I like or who I listen to. I’m not a stereotype, and I know that. I am black, and I am white. I am mixed. I realize that blackness isn’t something to hide. I begin to embrace my culture.
The first step is listening to Rap. Really listening to the sounds of an amazing song, digging deeper, and finding more meaning in the music than the surface level pop drivel I had been listening to, is fucking awesome. I have to get over the n-word, but my musical horizons expand tenfold once I do. It’s an amazing feeling. The group, Twenty One Pilots, helps me get there with their mix of rap and rock/pop.
Being Black comes with its ups and downs. My mental state has been eroded by racism. Not to the point where I’m depressed, but I feel hopeless about the world-changing. It makes me sad. Racism has made my self-esteem higher, I think. Or lower? I don’t really know. I just know that injustice needs to be stopped, and I will stop it wherever I can.
The day after the cop stopped us, the other two young boys and I were in the blotter. We hadn’t done anything wrong except play in the street. Yet the police were called about a disturbance. The neighbors saw me as black and a threat. The police saw and still see me as a threat. Security guards still follow me in stores. Ignorant white people still say ignorant things about the black experience. This is something I will be dealing with for the rest of my life, but at least I know who I am. I‘m mixed, and I’m proud.
Twinkle and Ezra’s stories were originally written and performed as part of TMI Project’s Black Stories Matter program and were recently released as an episode of The TMI Project Podcast. Season 2: Black Stories Matter launched on October 28th, 2020. New episodes air every Wednesday.
Black Stories Matter provides Black-led true storytelling workshops where Black folks can write about, share, and reflect upon their experiences without having to justify, explain, or defend the truth of their lived experiences. The culminating content — written stories, live storytelling performances, videos, and podcasts — is accessible to an all-inclusive audience.