The Paris Review

In the Nineties, Race Didn’t Exist

From the poster for Gattaca (1997)

In the summer of 1997, when I had just turned eleven, my mother decided my sister and I knew nothing and that it was up to her to fix it. We took a train to Washington, D.C., left our bags at an uncle’s house, and began a five-day odyssey through what felt like all of the museums that could possibly exist in the world. I was given a composition notebook, with instructions to take notes.

I’ve retained little from our frenzied speed walking through places like the U.S. Mint, the Washington Monument, the Air and Space Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the Arlington National Cemetery, except for what I wrote in the capitalized block letters I’d adopted as my handwriting of the season. The single incident I’ve committed to memory took place in the Museum of American History, at an exhibition on Jim Crow. I was gazing up at large artistic renderings of black people sitting in the backs of buses, not being permitted entrance to swimming, when a white boy, younger than I was, and his father, drew closer. The father was earnestly explaining how long, long ago, those people couldn’t sit in the same part of the bus as these people. I was struck by how he never said “white” or “black”: in my family, when you mentioned a new acquaintance or friend, the first question was always “White, black, or Ethiopian?” and then judgments were made accordingly.

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