Thursday, December 3, 2009

She was a tall, eloquent African-American woman with faultless skin and large warm eyes that belied the grey in her close cropped hair. When I had only twenty dollar bills in my purse she loaned me a dollar to tip the bus driver delivering us from the Airport in Hong Kong to the cruise ship. I thanked her and promised to repay the kindness.
As I walked through the upper restaurant the third night into the cruise I spotted a head with short cropped grey hair and stepped over to the table where she was dining with seven other people. "I think I owe you a dollar," I said smiling. But when she turned her full face to me, I knew she was not the same woman. I apologized and lingered to chat for a minute. She said she thought she knew of whom I was speaking and would mention that I was attempting to repay my debt.
The next evening she came by my table to say she had indeed seen my benefactor and said with laughter dancing in her brown eyes, that repayment was not necessary.
Two days later I was walking by the pool on the Lido Deck and saw the woman who had fronted me the dollar. I stopped and said lightly, "You're the one I owe a dollar. And I almost tried to repay that dollar to someone else by mistake."
I laughed, but my attempt at humor was met with eyes that did not reflect the warmth of our first meeting on the bus. "Yes," she replied. "I understand you have tried to give that dollar to every Black woman on the ship."
Stunned by the coldness of her response I said that I had approached only one woman and realized immediately she was not the person who had loaned me the dollar and apologized before walking away.
Back in my stateroom I felt a distress as deep as any I've known. What had prompted such a rude response? I pondered the woman's reaction. She obviously thought that my only key for identifying her was the color of her skin. That certainly was true. On a cruise ship, more than any place outside the United Nations, you see a wonderful variety of skin tones, from the warm olive of a French Canadian couple I shared breakfast with, to the light brown of the Phillipinos and Indonesians who make up the bulk of the crew, to the deeper browns of some passengers from the Middle East and the rich browns of those from Africa, to the pale tones of many of the officers who hail from Holland and England. It is a wonderful mix of the peoples of the world traveling together on an elegant ship in the mystical South China Sea. And the voices and dialects are even more diverse.
Is it only we Americans who appear to still have a hang up with skin pigmentation a half-century after Dr. Martin Luther King won equality for both African-Americans and women like myself, so that we could be assured of equal pay for equal work, and the opportunity to compete for careers from which women were once barred.
I have not walked in the shoes of the woman who was so defensive about her skin color. I saw only a woman with darker skin than mine, with high cheek bones, beautiful eyes and a tall frame draped in elegance. Only walking in her shoes would truly tell me why she reacted in the manner she did.

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