by Julie McClement
“Is it bad if I’m not into racism?” Phoebe asked.
Her brother, Max, was snapping photos of loons as they glided across the lake. This activity, which he referred to as his métier, was one he claimed required monk-like contemplation and he therefore had an annoying tendency to ignore Phoebe while engaging in it. At this, though, he lowered the camera.
“Um.” Max said. “I don’t know if you’ve heard, but racism is widely considered to be a pretty ethically challenged belief system.”
Phoebe rolled her eyes.
“I don’t mean into as in liking racism,” said Phoebe. “Duh. I’m not Satan. I mean I’m not into it as a subject. My class is doing a unit on racism and I have to present on a historical figure. I’m doing Martin Luther King Junior. Big hero, obviously, but I don’t want to waste my weekend looking up his favourite colour,” she sighed. “He probably said he loved them all equally.”
Phoebe glanced around her at the open blue sky with its wispy clouds. The breeze caressed everything it touched, from the bobbing cattails to the water lapping with a familiar thunk against their docked kayaks. The wood of the dock was warm under Phoebe’s legs. It was too nice a day to waste inside on homework.
“And I know Victoria is going to try to outdo everyone,” said Phoebe. Victoria was Phoebe’s friend-turned-nemesis. “She’s going jam her presentation full of racialized this and identity that.’”
“Sounds better than math,” Max said. He grimaced. Max had heard that a lot of advanced mathematics was developed by Arab cultures. He wished they’d kept it to themselves.
“See, this is what I mean,” said Phoebe. “You say ‘I hate math’ and everyone agrees. I say ‘I’m not one hundred percent crazy about racism’ and suddenly I’m history’s greatest monster.”
“Because math is pointless,” said Max. “Everyone knows that after high school you never use calculus.”
Their dad was a successful lawyer who couldn’t calculate the delivery driver’s tip on the two-for-twenty meal deal. Phoebe nodded.
“But racism’s different,” Max said. “Being anti-racist is part of being a good person.”
“That’s exactly my point,” said Phoebe. “Racism is the same as math. If you become a diplomat, sure, you need to know what ‘racialized’ means, like an engineer needs calculus. But if you’re a normal person? Just be colour blind, like Martin Luther King Junior wanted. Besides, racism can’t exist when there’s only one race.”
“Please don’t say ‘the human race,’” said Max.
“No, I mean white people,” said Phoebe. “We’ve got literally one Black family in this town. So the opportunity for racism is limited.”
“Yeah, I’m sure the Kralls think they’re in a post-racial utopia,” said Max, a sarcastic edge to his tone.
“Have you forgotten that Olive is actually in my class?” said Phoebe. Olive was the Kralls’s daughter. “Does she confide in me? Uh, no, cause we’re not friends, so that would be kind of weird. But if she was crying in the bathroom over racism I would know, and I would comfort her with sensitivity and tact.”
“Maybe she doesn’t confide in you because you’re clueless,” said Max. “Just because people here slap the ‘Coexist’ bumper sticker on their cars doesn’t mean they aren’t racist. To quote Martin Luther King Junior: ‘True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.’”
“Oh, you think you’re so enlightened just because you saw Get Out,” said Phoebe. “Are you going to tell me again about how Noam Chomsky said he liked your analysis of ‘the system’? Max, he replies to everyone. The man is lonely.”
Max didn’t answer for a moment, gazing out across the lake. Branches overhung the bank on the other side, dappling the bright surface of the water.
Max turned back to Phoebe.
“Hey, I have a cool fact for you to include in your presentation,” he said. “You know how Martin Luther King Junior believed in being colour blind, treating everyone equally regardless of race?”
“Well, one reason he had that idea was because he was colour blind. He literally couldn’t see colour.”
“Really?” Phoebe said. “Wait. Shut up. That’s fake.”
“I’m being totally serious,” Max said. “His disability influenced his activism. You know why he could envision a better world? Because he literally saw things differently than other people.”
Phoebe studied Max closely. His face was sincere.
“Wow,” said Phoebe. “Ms. Daniels would love that. She’s always talking about intersectionality and how a person’s multiple identities can influence one another. If I toss in enough jargon about that she won’t even care if the presentation’s a little light on actual information.”
Phoebe stretched out on the dock. A couple biographical facts and her presentation was good to go. For the rest of the day she’d soak up the sun.
“… and in conclusion, Mary Ann Shadd Cary is not just a hero, but my hero,” said Victoria. She closed her eyes and bowed her head, as though overwhelmed by the beauty of her own words.
The class clapped politely, with Phoebe only half clapping. One reason for this was Victoria herself. Earlier that day Victoria planted herself next to Phoebe’s desk to chat about how fun her pool party was going to be. A party she’d invited every girl in her class to, except for Phoebe. Phoebe didn’t care about that, or about anything Victoria said or did, and so half clapping was a manifestation of her indifference.
The other reason why Phoebe was only half clapping was because Phoebe’s attention was on Olive, Olive Krall to be specific. Specificity was necessary because Olive Krall was actually one of two Olives in the class, and so was known (when the girls needed to be distinguished from one another) as Olive K., but Phoebe had mentally christened her Black Olive.
Phoebe had identified three mysteries around Olive beyond why her parents had named her after a pizza topping. She had a retro aesthetic: wearing faded pastel dresses and fake pearl earrings. Her gold granny glasses were a bit too big, and she had a tendency to gaze at people in a way that was a little unfocused. That was mystery number one about Olive: what was up with the fashion?
Mystery number two was her scar. It was small, maybe half an inch long, and it ran along the side of her nose. When they’d first met two years ago, Phoebe had eagerly sought details on how she got it. Olive had been vague. Phoebe couldn’t tell if there was secretly a cool story behind it, or if Olive just wanted to make people think there was a cool story by cultivating an aura of secrecy.
Mystery number three was how Olive was reacting to the presentations. During each one, Phoebe’s eyes would periodically jerk over to Olive’s face. Phoebe knew that was rude, but she couldn’t help it—it was like a nervous tick, unstoppable. Olive had spent most of her time doodling, thin loops filling the margins. Why wasn’t she more interested?
Phoebe snapped to attention. She’d been so busy contemplating Olive that she hadn’t realized that Ms. Daniels was calling her up to present. She hurried to the front of the class, almost dropping her notecards in her haste. Victoria smiled behind her hand.
Once facing the class, Phoebe let out a slow breath. Her dad did litigation and he told her that the most important parts of any speech were the beginning and the end. If things get a little choppy in the middle, people didn’t mind.
“Wow, Victoria, your presentation is pretty hard to top,” said Phoebe. “A woman and Black? Such a complex dual identity. So much intersectionality. Well, I’m going to tell you all about someone who had a similar complex identity, but who is even more famous.”
She paused again.
“Everyone, I’m speaking about the one and only Martin Luther King Junior,” Phoebe said. “Some people would say he was able to overcome his disability, much as King believed that the United States would overcome its racial divisions. That’s how we’re trained to think about disability, isn’t it? As though it’s nothing but a negative. No, King incorporated his disability into his thinking.”
Phoebe noticed that Olive looked interested—way more interested than she had when Victoria was talking. Phoebe was pretty sure that when the Black student found your presentation on racism better, that meant you’d won.
“Martin Luther King Junior experienced colour blindness,” said Phoebe. “He—”
Suddenly, Victoria’s hand was in the air.
“Ms. Daniels said that people should leave all questions until the end,” said Phoebe, smiling sweetly.
Victoria turned to Ms. Daniels.
“The legacy of Doctor Martin Luther King Junior is extremely important to me,” said Victoria. “The thought of staying silent and risking my fellow students receiving factually—”
“Okay, ask your question,” said Ms. Daniels.
Victoria pivoted back to Phoebe.
“Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t colour blind,” said Victoria.
“Umm… yes he was,” she said. Her throat tightened.
“It’s not in his biographies,” said Victoria.
“It’s not widely known,” said Phoebe. “There’s a terrible stigma around disability.”
Ms. Daniels looked at Olive, like maybe she’d know.
“My great-uncle, Albie, marched with MLK,” said Sebastian. “The two of them had a lot of great conversations, including one about how beautiful the leaves look as they change from green to red. He definitely wasn’t colour blind.”
Phoebe opened her mouth, but nothing came out. The whole class was staring at her.
“MLK said Uncle Albie was one of the most nuanced thinkers on race he’d ever—”
“Let’s let Phoebe finish her presentation,” said Ms. Daniels.
“Um…” said Phoebe. “Martin Luther King Junior was born in Georgia…”
The rest of the presentation passed in haze and sputtered to a stop (“And in conclusion, a change is gonna come. A change of speaker because I’m done.”). After, she sat at her desk in silence until the final bell rang. The voices of her departing classmates washed over her. Her body sagged, too heavy to move.
For the rest of her life she was going to be known as the girl who thought Martin Luther King Junior was literally colour blind.
As Phoebe sat there she realized Victoria and Olive were lingering by the door. Olive was looking up at Victoria.
“I liked all the details you included,” said Olive. “They really brought her story to life.”
Phoebe could barely stop herself from snorting in disbelief. Olive had spent that presentation doodling! She just wanted to keep getting invitations to pool parties.
Olive left the class with a little wave. Now it was just Victoria and Phoebe, alone.
“Oh hey,” said Victoria. “What’s your next presentation going to be on? How Isaac Newton died in a car crash? Maybe that’s how he discovered the laws of motion.”
“Just go,” said Phoebe. “Go run off and spend all weekend laughing your head off about me. You go gossip with Amelia and Bridget and Black Olive and…”
Victoria was staring at her, lips slightly parted.
Wait, thought Phoebe. Did I just say ‘Black Olive?’
Oh. Oh no.
“Black Olive?” said Victoria. She pursed her lips, tilting her head back in revulsion. “That’s…you can’t just call someone ‘Black!’”
“She calls herself Black!” said Phoebe. Her palms were sweaty. She felt sick.
“No,” Victoria said. “Her calling herself Black is…it’s N-word privileges. You can’t do it. That is racist! That is not allowed.”
If Phoebe had called Olive ‘Black Olive’ to her face, she would have been mortified and apologized instantly. But in the face of Victoria’s prissy disgust Phoebe didn’t want to knuckle under.
“Would it be better if I called her Scarred Olive?” Phoebe said. “Would that have been better? To point out she’s got a giant scar on her face?”
“I cannot believe this,” said Victoria. “I cannot believe it. No.” She craned her neck around, as though searching for a police officer to frog-march Phoebe off to jail.
Then she stepped forward, staring directly into Phoebe’s eyes. “No wonder everyone hates you.”
“You know what?” said Phoebe. “You’re worse than racist—you’re mean.” She brushed past Victoria, out of the class.
“Worse than racist?” said Victoria, as Phoebe walked away. “You want to know who talks like that? Racists. I’m telling everyone!”
“Oh sure,” said Phoebe, trying to sound loftily unconcerned. “Do what you want.”
She sauntered off down the hallway, and then, once she was around the corner, broke into a run.
She ran through the halls, through the school’s double doors, down the sidewalk towards home, so panicked over what to do that her thoughts pinballed from one idea to the next.
Maybe she could become friends with Olive. If they were friends then people would see ‘Black Olive’ as an in-joke, totally cool, rapper cool. Wait…rapper cool? Was that racist?
Maybe…could she move? She’d once seen a brochure for boarding school. One with horses. That would be nice.
What if Beyoncé recorded a message of support? But why would she do that? If Beyoncé recorded a message of support, it would be for Olive, consoling her on having to deal with Phoebe. Beyoncé must never hear about this.
Finally, Phoebe was home. In spite of the running, she was freezing, goosebumps standing tall on her arms. But Phoebe didn’t go inside. She followed the path out back to the lake.
Max was standing on the dock, taking photos with his fanciest camera.
“You liar!” said Phoebe. “He wasn’t colour blind!”
Max burst out laughing.
“You are a terrible person!” Phoebe shouted. “I’m in so much trouble because of you!” She never would have said ‘Black Olive’ out loud if she hadn’t been totally frazzled.
“It’s your fault,” said Max. “If you’d done five seconds of reading, you’d know that MLK wasn’t even metaphorically colour blind. He didn’t want people to ignore race! The absence of tension isn’t the presence of justice, remember? Also, you should have done your presentation on a Canadian.”
“So you want me to stick to my own kind?” said Phoebe.
“No,” said Max. “I want you to consider the role you play in your own problems. Did you ever think about that?”
For a moment Phoebe considered thinking about it. About the way her stomach twisted when people talked too much about racism. About how she’d kept staring at Olive in class. About the reasons why, if she found Olive crying in the bathroom over racism she was unlikely to handle the situation with sensitivity and tact.
Phoebe considered it. She did.
Then she pushed Max into the lake.
Julie McClement grew up in midwestern Ontario and has studied creative writing at George Brown College. Her writing has previously been published in Spadina Literary Review and Dwelling Literary. She can be found on Twitter at @JulieMcClement.