Monday, October 29, 2018

Craig Reinbold: Is this shit racist?

This has been bothering me for so long, this weirdness around the word CHOCOLATE, adj. “having the color of chocolate; dark-brown.”


When I was a kid, 8th grade—so, like, 13?—I was at a school function, or a game, or something. It was late, dark, wrapping up, and for whatever reason I was standing around outside next to a 6th grader, and because my little sister was also in the 6th grade, and because I was full-on a big brother, or whatever, I have no idea really, I asked this kid if he knew her, and then I asked, So, what do you think of her? And he replied, I know her, but I don’t like her. And I asked, Well, why not? And he said, Because she’s chocolate and I don’t like chocolate girls. 

We're both from Wisconsin, my sister and I, truly, we're both from here, but she was born in Kolkata, formerly Calcutta. I'm white. She's brown. Not that either of those is a great descriptor of what our skin actually looks like, but the point is, that kid said this to me not knowing I was her brother. 

I picked him up—I was relatively big and he was small—and sort of threw/pushed him into a nearby parked car. 

Then the principal’s husband, who also worked at the school, appeared and pulled us apart and asked why I was so upset, almost in tears, which is how I get when I’m legit upset. I told him, and he asked if I wanted to call in his wife, the principal, but I didn't want to embarrass my sister, so I just said, No, let’s just forget it. Never happened. 

Except, obviously, I’ve never forgotten about it. I realize, too, there’s a good chance that 6th grader hasn’t forgotten either. 


I was in my early 20s, in Brazil, playing a lot of capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art, and one of the regulars at the gym introduced himself to me as Chocolate (pronounced shaw-co-lotch-ee). Capoeira was outlawed in Brazil for a long time, and so practitioners adopted nicknames, and this tradition has been kept up. And he had super dark skin. And he went by the name Chocolate. This was sort of stunning to me, but I went with it. I wasn’t from there after all, and Brazilian culture is not Wisconsin culture. Also, this was his name. This was how he identified himself, which seemed important. 


I was in my early 30s, teaching a CNF workshop. This was not a super diverse class, and some of our conversations were uncomfortable, at least for me. We had just finished talking about “Illumination Rounds,” an essay excerpt from Michael Herr’s Dispatches, which was written from his time as a Vietnam War correspondent for Esquire. So, Herr was writing for a big, well-reputed, national magazine, and yet in the essay he constantly refers to black soldiers as “spades.” One of the students asked what a “spade” was. They asked if it was racist. I had them Google it, and the consensus was, yeah, it’s pretty racist. 

Should we be reading this stuff? If it’s racist? Even if it’s fucking canonized in The Best American Essays of the Century

In the end, the class decided, Herr, whatever, maybe that language was acceptable then, and the essay is still really good, so we’ll go with it, that’s fine. It’s worth reading. But, a writer trying to be taken seriously today probably shouldn’t follow suit. 

I hit home, too, that for a writer these questions come up all the time. Ultimately, we need to answer them for ourselves. 

That was that. A pretty good conversation, actually, I thought. 

Then a few days later one of my students emailed out his essay to be workshopped the next week, and in the essay he wrote about going to a local park known to be a hangout for a lot of homeless youth, and I think the essay was about how much he enjoyed getting off campus and spending time getting high with real people. There was a drum circle, or a guitar circle, or maybe they were just passing a joint around in a circle (?), but at one point, in the essay, he referred to the guy sitting next to him, and this guy’s chocolate smile. 

We went through the essay, everyone was positive, as students tend to be in undergrad writing workshops, and no one mentioned this chocolate smile thing, so when all was done, I said something like, There is this one point in the essay I think we should talk about… After I mentioned it, a few others acknowledged that, yeah, it had made them uncomfortable, too. 

I made a point of acknowledging why it bothered me—I told them about that 6th-grader calling my sister chocolate when we were kids. But it's complicated, and I also told them about Chocolate, the guy I trained with in Brazil. I acknowledged our own experiences may shape our opinions about this. I knew what I thought, but I wanted to keep it ambivalent and let the students in the class figure their ideas out for themselves. 

This student responded by saying he had figured it out, had answered the question for himself Herr-style. He’d thought about it and had used that word intentionally. He was writing life the way it is. We’re all colors, he said, and asked if I would be bothered by him using vanilla to describe himself. 

I left it to the class. Everyone shrugged. And he stuck with chocolate smile


More recently, chocolate has turned up in a couple different books, and this didn't really bother me, but it did stand out. 

I neglected to note the page number, apologies, but at some point in Joe Ide’s novel IQ he describes a black character as chocolate. Joe Ide is Japanese-American, I think. But he grew up in South Central L.A. And I think in the book it’s a black character describing another black character. Does that make a difference? It didn’t really strike me as problematic…

Not problematic at all, for me, on page 10 of A Burst of Light Audre Lorde writes with all families, we sometimes find it difficult to deal constructively with the genuine differences between us and to recognize that unity does not require that we be identical to each other. Black women are not one great vat of homogenized chocolate milk.

There must be other examples, too. Got one? 


Is it a matter of speaking across ethnicities, or races? Or speaking, essentially, of oneself? Am I just hesitant to speak outside my own firsthand experience? But as writers don’t we do that all the time?

With this on my mind, I recently realized I actually made a similar move in an old essay, which was thoroughly workshopped, and published, and no one ever said anything: I described some Cali boys as having “skin tanned the color of caramel.” Granted, I wasn't calling those guys caramel. I was just describing the color of their skin. 

But, wait, isn't that what my student was doing?

But, wait, wait, caramel doesn't carry the same freight as chocolate, does it? The history of oppression and racism behind that 6th-grader declaring I don't like chocolate girls is not the same as the admiration we've been taught to feel for those white Calis and their righteously tanned, surfer skin, right? 

It's different. Or no? 

It’s complicated. I don’t know. 

Would I still be thinking about this, 25 some years on, if that kid had just said, Oh yeah, I do like her. I totally like... 

I’m cashed.

Thoughts? Insight? Help? Anyone?

Craig Reinbold is an ER nurse in a Milwaukee-area hospital, and was once the managing editor of Essay Daily. He really would like to hear what you think: @craigreinbold

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