Paved With Good Intentions

Path to Hell

A flash fiction piece I wrote this week elicited unexpected observations on the motivations of a character, and started me reflecting on comments made to me over the years, and the intentions behind them.

When I was a very small child, I lived in a blissful world. As children do. Differences were barely noticed, and didn’t warrant mention.

When I was a bigger child, differences jackhammered into my consciousness.

My first encounter was with a self-appointed cultural border guard when I was eight. She was in her thirties, or forties. Somebody’s mother, taking lunch orders.

She asked my name. Four simple letters; A-S-H-A, pronounced ah-shah.

She decided my pronunciation was wrong, and I became ash-ah from that day until the year I turned 18.

It was an off-hand comment, said with a chuckle. Something fleeting and insignificant in her life. She probably never gave it another thought. I, however, have had more than 37 years of pseudonymous confusion, saying my name clearly three times, and spelling it over the phone before I’m even asked.

That was the first time, but not the last, that I felt different in an unalterable way.

The adjusted pronunciation of my name permitted other impositions. All justified with a crescendoing chorus of “I didn’t mean anything by it”, “don’t take it so seriously”, “you’re way too sensitive”, “I thought we were friends”, “why are you being so mean to me”, “it was just a joke”.

Criticism-compliments on my hair, my skin, my parents’ clothing choices, my cultural differences, were liberally sprinkled throughout my childhood by children and adults alike.

I wanted to fit in. These were my friends, after all. They were just joking, after all. I joined in the joke. I started the joke. Drawing laughter around me as a shield before it could suffocate me. Haha, why yes my father does wear a tablecloth and my mother a curtain, haha.

As a teen I had a new group of friends. We navigated the pubescent minefield of who was trustworthy and who was not, with bated breath, and heart in mouth. The intentions grew more obscured. Were the slights because of the colour of my skin, or because of the piranha pit of hormonal fluctuations?

When I started at university, the elephant in the room became suddenly more militant, and the approaches to it more sly. Name calling and teasing were replaced with the more ambiguous “but I don’t see the colour of your skin”, “but you’re not like the others”, “but you’re different” refrain that tips a person of colour to the edge of madness. The back-handed compliment that insists on a throat-constricting thank you. Here, there be dragons of insanity.

Marriage provided no inoculation to the rampant verbal diarrhoea that afflicted random strangers in our presence. The tally of just how many people subtly-not-so-subtly sang, hummed or whistled Original Sin by INXS around us, fully believing it an original thought, is well into double digits. Then came our children.

Others’ discomfort metamorphosed into fetishism, a bizarre obsession with appearance, the particular shade of their skin. I was regaled with imaginings of how our as-yet-unborn-but-inevitably-handsome-son would one Summer wear a white bathing suit at the beach, his latté-brown skin shining in the sun, water glistening and beading off his broad chest, girls flocking to him.

Now that the children are in their teens, their swarthy good looks are the focus of attention.

The worst of it, the most maddening, is that the path to this particular perdition is paved with so very many good intentions and well-meaning ignorance, and so very little thought.

25 Comments on “Paved With Good Intentions”

  1. Your writing, Asha, is so stunning. Everyone should read this and think before they speak if they aren’t already. Good intentions mean nothing if people are getting hurt. I’m sorry this happens to you and so many others.

    • Stacie, thank you so much! The world is changing… slowly. I hold out hope that people are getting better at thinking before speaking.

  2. A lucid and illustrative explanation that hopefully makes people understand instead of just thoughtlessly tossing out comments. Beautifully written, Asha.

    • Cindy, please do share this with your girls when the time is right. All you can do (and it’s not a small thing) is give them a good sense of themselves, and their absolute right to be themselves… and love. But I think you’ve got that covered in spades already.

  3. Oh, how I know what it is like to not be like everyone else, but I could pass and that in its own way is maddening. Wonderfully written, Asha. (And I am saying your name in my head the way it is meant to be pronounced.) 🙂

    • Oh Bill, prejudice in all its forms is heinous. Thank you for both the lovely compliments, and getting my name right! 😉

  4. Wonderful piece Asha. Being different and other takes many different forms, for you it was the color of your skin, and for some it is who they love, the God they worship, being adopted, even being motherless… People can be horrible, and wonderful, I hope you’ve found way more wonderful people!

  5. wah. how do you do this so beautifully? i really love how you articulate the struggles, the frustrations, the wrestles, the good intentions, in being a minority and what that means, and then what that implies for your children too. it’s the conversation that longs to be discussed but that no one dares to initiate dialogue upon, yet you do so, seemingly effortlessly.

    i love every word of it. but ‘pubescent minefield’… so concise and so well described. =)

  6. Sigh, you can imagine the field day people had with my name then. My teens were spent in Kenya and I have been called a varied range of names. But, I chose to wear my name with pride and looked people in the eye, asking them why they thought the name was funny. That usually did the trick. I do hear where you’re coming from though. Could not have been easy.

    • I hear you! When I was growing up, our community consisted of less than 100 individuals… it was hard to find another face the same colour as mine, or another name that sounded even vaguely similar. Now, I wouldn’t change it, because it has contributed so much to my feisty nature. But, of course, that’s not how an 8 year-old sees it!

  7. “Well-meaning ignorance” is such a perfect phrase for what you have described here. I especially appreciate that no matter how good the intentions or well-meaning the ignorance, you refuse to let people off the hook for their thoughtlessness & the very real impact it has on the lived experiences of you and your family.

    • Thank you so much. It’s such a tricky line to walk — people usually want to do/say the right thing, but too often speak without thought. Thanks for stopping by and reading. I so appreciate your comments.

  8. I was raised in Florida in the 70’s and 80’s. Racial tensions always flew high, and being from a redneck kind of southern breed family, I was exposed to the ‘ignorance’ that you speak of. Well intentioned I think is just a polite way to excuse a persons personal bias toward how they feel about people due to their own ignorance.

    • I like to believe that mostly people want to do the right thing… mostly they want to be kind. Too often, though, they’re misguided or just plain ignorant that what they’re saying/doing is hurtful.

  9. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve found myself in conversations with people and had the gentle thought “Oh. You’ve never been the one in the room who’s different, have you?” And then I have to resist the urge to put them on the next flight to the most different place I can imagine for them and let them sink or swim.

    • Nate, you know on Australian television, there have now been two programmes geared to precisely this idea. The first took a group of racist folks off to far flung places in the world to show them precisely what migrants were fleeing and the conditions under which they fled in order to get to Australia. The other, aired this week (yesterday actually) and took a group of racist folks out into indigenous communities so they could get a little taste of what their lives entailed. I’m always a little dubious about these shows for all kinds of reasons, but I do appreciate that someone had the same idea as you and then said “hey, let’s make reality TV out of it and make some money too!”.

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