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Yes ma’am, white people do get keroids

Katherine Khorey | Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Working at a small independent bakery in a semi-gentrified neighborhood this summer, I had interesting encounters with every other customer. Some were a good kind of interesting (the lady who was en route to northern Michigan for her first ever kayaking trip), some were a bad kind of interesting (the people who complain to cashiers about prices), and some were just plain interesting (the residents of the nearby mental health facility).

But one of my favorite interesting conversations came late in the summer. A lady named T’Raina called in one day to request four loaves of six-grain bread. I took her order over the phone and, as I was working unexpectedly the next day, served her when she and her teenage daughter came in to pick it up. I handed her her bag of bread and asked, “Can I get you anything else, ma’am?

“I’m sorry, I’m just curious.” T’Raina said, motioning to the area right beneath her own throat. “Are those keloids?”

A pause for two points of information. First, for those of you who slept through that slide in Common Human Diseases, a keloid is a mass of scar tissue produced by the body in a particularly overzealous healing of a wound. Keloids can occur in many shapes and sizes, from those resembling large stubborn pimples to huge fleshy scars that cover entire limbs. I have a few of the former; your Common Human Diseases textbook depicts the latter.

Second, keloids run in my family. Mine are beneath my own throat, a few inches from a childhood surgical scar that, oddly enough, healed up just fine. And, because I was on Xanga long enough to know just how much fun other people’s medical stories are, those are all the details you need.

Anyway, I’d recently gone through a long process to get the keloids conclusively identified as such. Now it was pretty refreshing that T’Raina had diagnosed them at first glance.

“Yes, ma’am.” I told her. “Those are keloids.”

“Oh.” She said. “I didn’t think white people got those.”

I was a little too taken aback to formulate a coherent answer, so I said “Um, yes ma’am, they’re keloids. I inherited them from my dad.” (My father’s father’s family came from Syria about a hundred years ago. This is as close as I come to non-whiteness and is all I could think of).

“Okay.” T’Raina said. “I didn’t mean to be intrusive. I just wondered.”

“It’s fine.” I said. “I’m just glad someone knows what they are.”

That was true. But the whole truth is there was something else I felt glad about. As I packaged up a few muffins for T’Raina, helped distribute the bags between her and her daughter, rang up her total and wished them a nice afternoon, I’ll admit the guilty white liberal in me briefly danced a euphoric little solidarity dance.

***

It is true enough that personal problems of the keloid magnitude aren’t limited to any one race, age, gender or sexual orientation. These form basic human common ground. Guaranteed, no matter who or what you are, you are currently struggling with at least one of the following:

Acne in the usual or perhaps odd locations, stale breath, inverted foot arches, stale armpits, hair that refuses to conform to modern standards of beauty, hangnails, aversion to green vegetables, aversion to red meat, self-righteousness, and that affliction most common to contact lens wearers with allergies: “eye boogers.”

Thus we all struggle against the little imperfections. They may be the only things that people can agree they have in common.

***

Last week I watched dozens of people say good-bye to their families at the International Departure gate at O’Hare. Some went down the security line reserved “For Deployed Military.” Some were simply leaving for a long time. One girl my age broke quickly away from her parents before the exchange could become too emotional. Watching all that, realizing that the rest of the world goes through the same hard good-bye, made my own leaving the country easier. Somehow, knowing that a struggle belongs to everyone takes some of the weight from your own.

Maybe that’s because knowing you share someone else’s struggle is a sure way to connect with them. So is a white girl with keloids – by virtue of them – automatically not a racist? Of course not. But she has a little more affinity for one of her bakery customers who happens to be black.

And in the mirror the keloids look a lot smaller than they used to.

Katherine Khorey is a junior

studying English and Russian at Trinity College, Dublin. She plans to spend a lot of her free time baking organic bran muffins while wearing her hand-sewn flowered apron. Seriously.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.