Our Good Friends the Essermans

By | Tagged: Life

Earlier this week, Melissa Fay Greene wrote about the adoption of her daughter, Helen, from Ethiopia, and telling jokes at church. Her new book, No Biking in the House Without A Helmet, is now available.

My husband and I are white people. We shop at R.E.I. for the
. We have cousins on both sides who are vegans and have attended more than one bean-filled wedding reception. We could move to Dubuque, Iowa, or Bangor, Maine, if we wanted to, without anyone wondering what on earth we were thinking. If pulled over by a traffic cop for a moving

violation, we await him at our driver’s side window with the wide-eyed innocent-looking expectation that the exchange will proceed cordially and without undue suspicion. We are well-acquainted with the many bonuses of what is known on the street as White Skin Privilege.

We were born just this side of the mid-20th-century, to Jewish parents, when ethnicity was on the verge of being accepted as an acceptable American lifestyle. Jerry Lewis, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion of Israel, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Danny Kaye, and Sammy Davis, Jr., were major Jews of our childhood. We weren’t told about the Holocaust.

In 1980, my husband Don Samuel and I, newlyweds, moved to Rome, a northwest Georgia hill-town that hadn’t gotten the news yet that ethnic people were just regular folks. “Where y’all from?” everyone asked us.  Our new neighbors asked us, the landlord asked us, the Big Boy’s waitress asked us, the filling station man asked us. The people down the street whose car had a bumper sticker reading, “Oil Yes, Jews No,” did not ask us.

We’d moved to Rome, Georgia, from Athens, Georgia, after Donny graduated from the UGA School of Law, but our Rome questioners — “Where y’all from?” — felt perplexed rather than satisfied when we replied, “Athens.”  “Athens?” said the Big Boy’s waitress, squinting at us. “Y’all Greeks?”

A variation on “Where y’all from?” was offered by citizens who had once accidentally seen a Woody Allen movie. Those people knowingly asked, “Y’all from New York?”  It made us not want to confess that Donny was from New York.

Posted on August 5, 2011

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