“Thierry,” I said, following the cat into the kitchen through the side door, like always. “We have to talk about Chapter Eight.”
Thierry looked up from where he was doing the dishes and raised an eyebrow. “Hi. We do?”
The cat, frustrated by my obstructing his path to the food dish, butted against my legs and I stepped aside.
“Yeah,” I said, waving my manuscript at Thierry. “Yeah, we do. I mean…you can’t say things like this. You can’t talk about….well, first of all, we can’t say ‘les peaux rouges,’ because that’s not, uh, it’s not acceptable terminology. You can’t call people ‘redskins.’ It’s not okay.”
“I’m not calling people anything,” he said.
“Yes, you are.” I pointed at the place on the page where I’d underlined pretty much every second line in thick red marker. “Right here, it says-!”
“I’m not,” repeated Thierry firmly, “calling them redskins. It’s a chapter about Jeanot’s mother using food dye on him to make his skin red to look like an Indian. The term applies.”
“We don’t,” I repeated, “call people-!”
“Yes you do.” Thierry shook his head at me. “The Washington football team is called ‘The Redskins.’”
I opened my mouth, realized I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, and shut it again. Then I took a deep breath.
“Thierry,” I insisted, the voice of reason, “the terminology is only part of the problem. The chapter content itself is kind of an issue. I mean, this is super offensive stuff we’re dealing with, here. Dying your skin a certain color to portray a character of another race or ethnic background is considered absolutely taboo. Have you ever heard of blackface?”
Thierry gave me a disgusted look.
“Yeah okay, so you’ve heard of it,” I went on quickly. “Right, and you know how offensive that is to African American people…or to African people, or, actually, to anyone who has naturally dark skin. You can’t dye your skin a certain color to make fun of someone.”
“No one is making fun of anyone in this chapter.” Thierry shrugged again. “Jeanot has endless respect for the Indians-!”
“Native Americans,” I muttered, “or at least American Indians, okay?”
“For the Indians,” insisted Thierry. “That is what he would have called them, Indians. He holds them in such high regard that he wants to stay red for the rest of his life. He’s not trying to insult them.”
“That,” I began, “doesn’t make it any better!”
“Why not?” Thierry was watching me now, much calmer and more in control than I was. I was getting frustrated and annoyed and trying not to raise my voice. Why couldn’t he understand that this sort of thing just wasn’t going to work?
“I…I don’t know,” I muttered, shaking my head. “I don’t know, it’s just…”
I waved my hands around a little bit, an expressive gesture meaning that I couldn’t figure out how to express what I was trying to say.
I wanted to explain to him that we were hurting people by writing this stuff, and that by using words and terms and even by showing actions that someone, somewhere had used to marginalize people, we were doing wrong. We were reminding people of a lack of respect they’d faced and were probably still facing. We were making it obvious how much white privilege we have and how we’re free to use it whenever we want. As a white woman doing my best to be an ally in a world where darker-skinned people get shot down by police for nothing at all, or beaten up on the metro, I was trying to navigate a conversation that I knew was important but that I wasn’t sure how to have.
“Arielle.” Thierry dropped a final dish into the dishwasher, dried his hands on a towel and came to me, getting a little more French as he did so, even in the way he pronounced my name. “The story takes place in France, in the 1950s. This is what happened. Back then, people weren’t interested in being politically correct or sensitive to cultural issues. I remember this play; I remember what it was like to be a peaux rouge.”
I glared, but he ignored me.
“This is a true story,” he said. “I’m not going to change the events of history because you’re uncomfortable with how it feels. We cannot retroactively erase racism by simply pretending it never happened and refusing to write about it. That won’t fix anything, crois moi, chérie.” He paused and smiled. “Now, can you stay for a little while? Would you like something to drink? I bought more orange juice.”
I spent the next few minutes gazing helplessly at Chapter Eight over my glass of juice and doubting my own convictions, for a change.