On Friday night I attended my first “sip and paint” party. The idea behind these wildly popular parties is that you and a bunch of friends get together and paint while sipping wine. The parties are held at specific venues created for just this purpose. They supply the wine, the canvas, the paint and the instruction. I was excited to try it.
When I arrived, I was directed to sit down in front of one of the many canvasses lined up in a row. On my canvas — indeed, on everyone’s canvas — were drawn the outlines of tonight’s painting. As the teacher said, “It’s kind of like paint by number. I’ll tell you what part to paint in, I’ll tell you what colors to mix and you paint.”
We were celebrating the birthday of my friend Alice. Alice is African-American. I know her from my dance class, whose participants are, mostly, African-American. So I was not surprised that in our party of eight, I was the only white person. I was, however, surprised when I looked around the room at all of the other participants from other groups who had come to paint. Indeed, I was the only Caucasian in a group of approximately 50 African-American women.
Soon the instructor pulled out the painting we would be doing that night: a picture of a woman with black skin, a huge Afro, full lips and curves that I will never, ever have. I was taken aback. I thought, “This is not me! I barely know this woman, and I can’t imagine hanging this picture in my house.” Still, the instructor encouraged us to “make it our own.” I started with the skin color. I had black, brown and white on my paper plate. As I asked the instructor for a little more white paint, the giggles and snickers began. Oh, yah, I was gonna need more white paint. I mixed up a beautiful shade of Band-Aid for the woman’s skin. Time for the hair, but what was I supposed to do with that? Make a blonde Afro? I painted it black, then added blonde highlights. I was starting to lose my image. By the time it came to filling in the red for the heart-shaped lips and the blue for the amazing booty, I knew I was lost. I knew for the very first time in my life that I was in the minority. And I did not like it. I was irked that they didn’t provide a white person canvas for me. I mean, why couldn’t they see me, and accommodate me?
That’s when I got a glint of understanding. How often did — in fact, do — my African-American friends have to say, “What about me? I don’t see myself in that painting, that history book, that story.” And I began to imagine what it must be like day in and day out for a black child to see a “flesh” crayon that does not look like their flesh, read books that have only white heroes and, indeed, have to wear a Band-Aid that doesn’t nearly match their skin tone. I’m starting to get why parents have insisted on a black American Girl doll, an African-American Santa Claus and that black history be taught in schools. Because it’s degrading and just plain wrong, when you — and other people like you — are ignored. My experience pales in comparison with what African-Americans have experienced all of their lives. And I at least had a glass of wine to lessen the blow.
I apologize to my friends of color who have had to say to themselves throughout their lives, “This is not me!” — only to be ignored by those of us with white privilege. It’s a small realization and a small gesture. But for one night, I felt a glimpse, a tiny glimpse, of your pain. And while I felt irked, I understand why you feel ire.
You surely do not need this white woman’s permission to feel outrage. I just wanted to say that for once, on a very tiny level, I was able to experience how it is to be ignored, right before I was able to retreat to my comfortable white cocoon.
Martha Wegner lives in St. Paul.