The Politics of the Prom
By Margaux Galli
I spoke to Tyrell seventeen years after we went to junior prom together. It was eighteen years after he’d written me a poem and left it on my chair in class for me to find. According to my fifteen-year-old self, I turned him down because I thought he was “too nice” — little did I know that kind of sweetness would only come around every so often. What struck me in our recent conversation is how the core of him hadn’t changed. He was still that sensitive, gentle soul and seemed very comfortable with himself.
Perceptions color the world we live in, both psychologically and metaphorically. I started this story one way and it has since evolved as stories tend to do. At first and understandably, I was basing this memory solely on my own perspective but it shifted when Tyrell could finally add his voice to the mix. His first go-to reaction seemed to be self-blame, hoping that he hadn’t done anything to make me feel uncomfortable, which was surprising to me as I had spent a lot of time worrying back then and now about his comfortability and emotional safety. But in his mind, I seemed to be the one that needed comforting and I didn’t know how to accept that nor did I feel deserving of it — the epicenter of what is now called white guilt.
“I’m sorry you were going through something like that. I had no idea.” He said, with genuine concern.
There are several viewpoints to this story which include myself, my parents, a therapist, Tyrell, and the tensions of racial prejudice.
My therapist, B. Woods, was a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who specialized in adolescents. At one point, she worked in juvenile facilities. She grew up in Chicago during the 1950s and 1960s — the same generation as my parents. B. Woods was hardball, no-nonsense, and made me laugh more than anyone I knew. I admired her and seventeen years later I still carry the lessons she taught me with great fondness. The main thing I remember about her is that she was always in control of the conversation. She often surprised me with an unexpected counterpoint when I thought she would agree with me or think the session would go a certain way. It was the kind of mentorship I needed at the time — a strong woman who could provide clarity in the midst of chaos. My family and I came to B. Woods because I was experiencing depression after an unforeseen neurological disturbance left me permanently disabled. B. Woods did not treat me like a victim, she saw me as an entity of potential. In her eyes, this was the new Margaux and the old Margaux could now be let go.
In the following years, with the guidance of B. Woods, my desire to experience teenage normalcy grew alongside my confidence. Approaching my junior prom, I felt that I would not get asked. As a result of the changes in my life, it was difficult for me to get close to other students and even more so with male students. I decided to take matters into my own hands and ask a boy myself. Tyrell and I didn’t know each other well, but he was still that “too nice” classmate who wrote me a poem the year before. I was worried that being one grade younger than me, which is an issue at that age, would make him nervous to go but he accepted my offer. However, there was one detail about us in particular that diverges the perspectives. In my recent conversation with Tyrell, he shared with me that he was thrilled to be asked by me, especially since he was a sophomore and wasn’t expecting to go. He reported walking on cloud nine as he returned home from school that day. Of course, I was happy and relieved all at once but on my end, a different kind of worry rose up inside of me. In response, I decided not to mention to my parents that Tyrell was African- American because it would be made clear upon his arrival. I didn’t think it was morally necessary. Why should Tyrell be treated any different? Yet, the thought was inside of me. If he was Caucasian, no one, including myself, would think twice. According to Tyrell, the conversation with his parents did not involve my skin color and there was no need for him to think twice about it. To put things into perspective, Tyrell and I attended a high school where he could count on two hands how many black kids he knew. For him, the number was seven.
“Wow. I never noticed that,” I said in our recent conversation.
“Honestly, I didn’t either,” he said.
With all this being on the table, I had reason to worry. I grew up in a family where prejudicial commentary was a common occurrence much to my chagrin and shame. It was complicated at times because on one hand, they were not against having friends or working with people of different ethnic backgrounds than themselves. They enjoyed an immense collection of classic black music from their youth. On the other hand, racist jokes were often made and laughed at. Black and brown people as a whole were often spoken about negatively; influenced by the consumption of various media. My parents had different views and didn’t always agree. One seemed to be less harsh than the other and many times would chastise the other for their behavior, often siding with my discomfort. But I had many fights and discussions with both of my parents over the issues of racial inequality and social justice.
Even though I was attempting to stand on a moral high ground, I was scared of telling my parents—scared of how they might react. If Tyrell was white, I wouldn’t have to wonder what my parents were going to think. He could exist in the peaceful valley of the anonymous white person just as I could with his parents. I thought I could have control over the situation and my feelings if I willfully didn’t acknowledge his ethnicity, then I could somehow deprive the racial subtext of its power. My stance was well-intentioned and I wanted to be a part of the solution rather than the problem. But, as usual, nothing could get past B. Woods.
It’s almost comical that I didn’t anticipate that the first question she’d ask would be about his name. I immediately realized that I couldn’t obstruct this from anyone because his most basic identifier was generally considered “black”. I wanted to prove my anti-racist stance by making no exceptions, not even for my therapist — B. Woods was also African-American.
I couldn’t lie to her, so when I dryly told her his name, she immediately followed up with widened, concerned eyes. The room felt like it was frozen for a moment.
“Is Tyrell African-American?”
“Yes”, I said, proper and dignified.
I was determined to exude neutral feelings about it, to be the exceptional human who thought nothing of skin color and not even she could drag it out of me. On another level, I wanted so much for her to approve of me and assumed she would feel the same as I did. Looking back, it was an incredibly rigid way of thinking because this was the perfect person to talk to about this. After all, this was the same woman who educated me on the topic of mulattos when I asked her about a black classmate having white extended relatives. Being a teenager, I thought I had it all figured out and didn’t think I needed her input on the matter because I had decided for her.
“You have to tell your parents!”
I was indignant.
B. Woods talked about growing up in the same generation as my parents and how they all saw the same things on the news. The reality of those times could be enlivened again in even the most well-meaning people. In her view, given that history, it wouldn’t be right for me to surprise my parents that way. I was taken aback by her ability to see things from my parents’ point of view. I assumed she would be outwardly supportive of my stance. Instead she took a rather cautious viewpoint. B. Woods never once spoke ill of my parents and whenever possible tried to build bridges between myself and them. Naturally I wasn’t aware of the implications of this conversation, her thoughts behind the scenes, or within what parameters she might have been operating in. B. Woods was also a mother and I now wonder about what must have been going through her mind— did she imagine the prospect of sending her own children into a situation like this?
After telling my parents Tyrell was black, my father requested that he come by the house before the night of the prom. For my senior prom, I went with a Caucasian classmate and all he had to do was show up. Whether my father consciously thought of it this way or not is unknown to me and for them it seems lost to memory. However, on some level, Tyrell had to be pre-approved. Beyond that, there wasn’t much of a conversation about him. No questions were asked. The day Tyrell visited, I remember my father sitting in front of the TV and saying hello to him. What has continued to be seared into my memory is the image of Tyrell staring at the back of my father’s chair possibly because it reminded me of myself in so many situations with my dad. Tyrell shared with me that my father spoke to him in a way that he expected and respected — protective and investigative, asking Tyrell his GPA and what he planned to do in the future. At that point, I felt uncomfortable and quickly ushered Tyrell into my room in what I remember to be a move of protection both for myself and Tyrell. I knew what it felt like to be grilled by my dad and I was fearful of us being criticized — him for giving the “wrong” answers and, for me, choosing the “wrong” date.
Tyrell and I sat on my bed while I showed him my graphic novel collection. My mother popped in to say hi, making sure the door was open. She was friendly and kind to Tyrell in the best way she knew how. I was very nervous given I’d never been this close to a boy before and it was the same for him. We sat close enough to feel each other’s breath. He didn’t visit for more than an hour or two. During our phone conversation, Tyrell shared with me that he was very aware of not wanting to overstay his welcome. He had walked himself to my house and walked himself back at a time that he felt was the move of a gentleman. It was important for him to be a gentleman and to be thought of as one.
It is unknown to me if all these observations and memories of the meeting were directly related to prejudice and I can’t analyze the subconscious or conscious psychology of Tyrell’s experience. According to his own words, he experienced no malice from my parents or his own. My mother and father have always been at times reserved people and were likely to treat most people the way I’ve described. I think what was difficult for me then and now is not knowing for sure that it was safe because, behind the scenes, I’d experienced the arguments and the comments that I felt were offensive. I remember it causing me great distress. I was taught in school to speak up against prejudice and hurtful comments, but at home I was being goaded for it, teased for being too sensitive.
I had a wonderful time at the prom with Tyrell. He looked handsome, picked out a nice suit, and made sure his vest matched my dress — a sultry burgundy. He gave me a corsage of the same color. Our parents took pictures of us outside the house. Everyone was relatively civil and congenial. For all intents and purposes, it was a conventional prom date. I was a shy, inhibited girl and I assumed because he was younger that he would be intimidated by the juniors (probably a projection of my own insecurities) but he sang out loud to every song with unabashed enthusiasm. He swung me around the dance floor and brought everyone into our circle with a big smile on his face. A couple of lovely details that I’d either forgotten or missed, Tyrell was able to fill in. After the prom was over, according to Tyrell, I was tired and had trouble going down some stairs— keeping in mind that this was all being siphoned through the vein of myself also being a minority but in a different way. Tyrell picked me up in his arms and carried me down the stairs. What I had missed is that he wanted to kiss me at the end of the night but never did.
What I think about now is that Tyrell didn’t have a say in what was going on in the minds of everyone involved in this narrative even though it was linked to the skin he wore every day. At the time, I didn’t know his personal stance or perspective. We never had that conversation and it didn’t seem to be necessary. However, he could’ve walked into an unsafe or demeaning situation, because of my unwillingness to start an open dialogue with my family. What is my role in this? Wasn’t it me who actively sought to face this discomfort, knowing what I feel about my family? It wasn’t right for me to surprise him like that, given what I didn’t know about his history for the sake of proving a point. I had also made an assumption about B. Woods — that she would feel exactly as I did on the subject of interracial dating because of my pre-conceived notions about her own experience and perspective as a woman of color.
Although my initial intention came from a good place and represented my attempt to normalize the experience, I was not considering the diversity of perspectives that were at play and the consequences of not acknowledging those points of view. The problems or insecurities that rested on the shoulders of myself and my family were now being hoisted upon the shoulders of both B. Woods and Tyrell. Of course, my therapist was not a victim in this situation. She brought to the conversation both her professional skills and personal experience to educate, guide, and heal. She had done her job well with professional grace. In her eyes, however, she showed me the need for intervention and protection.
Had this all played out as originally intended, Tyrell could’ve become more a symbol or an educational tool rather than a nice kid who wrote me a poem. In the end, there was no perfect solution to this prom experience. My mind was shrouded with uncertainty and defiance to the point that I was distracted from the excitement of a new experience —my first prom and date. I didn’t want to be part of a family that has racial prejudice, yet I live in a world filled with prejudice. I was coming of age during a time of increased education about diversity in schools and workplaces. My parents lived during the time of the civil rights movement whereas I was taught about civil rights in a very specific way that they did not receive. B. Woods encouraged me to be respectful of these different experiences and not project or punish them with my own.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this now because of the current surge of protests, anger, and conversations that are populating the world’s stage, especially how often we miss the more subtle aspects of prejudice and systematic racism. We tend to forget about the in between, that people have varying degrees of opinions or feelings about their own identity. Nobody is obligated to play any role that has been assumed of them even if it’s not necessarily a negative one. When I asked Tyrell why he felt sympathetic for me in the experience I had, he said because it’s just the way he is. It was not on his shoulders to accept or take in the opinions of others because from his point of view, it isn't about him. Others might disagree with that and expect him to take a grander stance; even I expected that. I wanted to be angry and to make a point, Tyrell sought peace and understanding. Often in these conversations about racial inequality, we want everyone to be part of our complicated narrative when the truth is both complicated and simple at the same time. I thought that neutrality was strength when in reality the conversation was the strongest stance I could take. It didn’t have to be a complicated dialogue but just the open statement of I’m okay with Tyrell and all that he is. We are going to prom is far more powerful than what was ultimately silence. It is not enough to say I’ve been to prom with an African-American person or went against my parents. What’s important is the conversation we have with one another — the conversations I had with B. Woods, Tyrell, my parents, and myself are what ultimately provided the lessons of this story. All of these narratives are a lesson if we’re open enough to listen.