I See Color

One morning several weeks ago, I arrived at work to find a new cleaning crew in our office. Specifically, I saw two middle aged black men swiffering and carefully dusting desktops. Immediately I was curious to know who they were; our office was regularly cleaned by two Polish ladies and it seemed clear that this was a different company. As I waited for them to finish up in our wing I sauntered over to the production coordinator and inquired about who they were. He told me they were from a new service he had found; not everyone was happy with the previous ladies’ work so we were trying somebody new. Then he told me that when they had finished, he wanted to know what I thought of the job they had done.

As the guys wrapped up and moved into other offices, I thanked them and settled into my space. I had to admit, I wasn’t impressed. While I abhor strong smelling toxic chemicals, I did expect things to smell a bit fresher. They didn’t. I tend to walk around the office barefoot but I kept my slides on at first expecting the floors to be wet. But they weren’t. The mops I saw them pushing around must have been dry. There was still dust on the window sills and a bit of grit on the floor; overall, it didn’t seem much cleaner than the day before.

After they left, my production coordinator came in to see what my officemates and I thought of their work. That’s when I started twisting and turning in my chair. I started, “Well, it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great, but wait, what did other people think?” He immediately looked confused. He knew I was not one to mince words, ever. He could always count on me to tell him exactly what I thought, so why was I being so wishy-washy over a cleaning company? “Well,” I began, trying to explain. “Well, perhaps we could make a list of things we’d like done better, and let them have one more go at it?” He told me that was fine, that it sounded like a plan, but he was still eager to know why I seemed so hesitant to badmouth them. That’s when our eye-opening conversation began…

I grew up in a mixed race household–my mom is white and my dad is black. This and my parent’s personalities created an environment where race was talked about openly and often. My dad would make jokes about race all the time that white people were never sure they were allowed to laugh at. One time we were at Subway, and he asked the sandwich artist what was in the seafood sensation. The employee assured him with much certainty, “Some imitation crabmeat, but mostly all white fish.” My dad looked up at him with an unflinching straight-face and replied, “Is that opposed to Negro fish?” The teenager in the green cap behind the counter stood there confused and a bit horrified as my dad burst into uproarious laughter. I laughed about it when we got in the car, but I was embarrassed as it happened; I felt like the word ‘Negro’ had to be reserved for home, people outside didn’t understand us using it.

Some of my best friends over the years have been mixed. I married a white man. My openness in discussing race has continued throughout my entire life and often extends to my coworkers. I spend 10 hours a day with these people–shit gets real, real fast.

So I didn’t sugarcoat it when my production coordinator wanted to know why I was so anxious to give these cleaning guys another shot at our office. I told him that if I can be a part of giving a black-owned company regular business, I wanted to do that. I knew the work had to be right, and I wouldn’t say it was if it wasn’t. But I felt both the desire and the responsibility to allow them the opportunity if I could.

My officemates in my department who know me well did not flinch at my statement. They hear me shoot off at the mouth all day long and what I said fell right in line with previous comments. My coordinator though looked surprised. Well, not surprised–intrigued. He wanted to explore what I had said, he wanted to know more. He said as a white man, he had never felt any obligation or desire to help out any other white person in that way; it had never occurred to him and he didn’t feel connected to his race in the same manner that I did. Knowing what I believed to be the answer, I asked him why he thought that was. He responded accordingly. He told me that it would never come to his mind to “look out” for other white people because he had never needed to, white people were usually fine. I couldn’t help myself, I immediately shot out the thought that in my mind was inextricably linked: “So I’m guessing when some white dude shoots up a church or blows up a building you feel completely disconnected from that right, like it has nothing to do with you?” He smiled and looked up at me. “I’m not gonna lie, being a white guy is a pretty sweet gig.” I smiled back at him and agreed, “No shit!” We all laughed and eventually broke our huddle to grab coffee and eat our breakfast.

All this got me thinking about the sense of responsibility and the connection I have felt towards my race my entire life. I wondered how different it must feel to be white–to walk around feeling a complete sense of individuality. To only know your actions as your own, and not representative of a group. It pissed me off for years that on standardized tests and other forms I only had the option of checking “black” or “other”. (It’s only recently that we have been triumphantly able to fill in a “mixed race” box). For a long time I switched back and forth between each box. When I checked “other”, it was out of defiance–they didn’t get to know what I was if they wouldn’t make space for who I was on the form. When I checked “black” it was often out of a sense of solidarity and obligation. I generally got pretty decent test scores and I wanted those numbers to count for black people. In my mind, anything I could do that was positive might be helpful for my race; I thought it might enable other people to see us in a different light, to see the positives instead of the far more frequently highlighted negatives.

It’s always bothered me when people say they don’t “see” color, that they look at everyone the same. I’ve only ever heard white people say this. I think they think it sounds good, and it may make them feel better about who they are, but it’s not true. I don’t think it helps in having a real and frank discussion about race and it definitely does not serve to establish a more equitable society. When a white person says they don’t “see” race it’s like salt in the wound. I think, not only do they get to live comfortably under the protection of their white skin, they get to pretend that that protection does not exist, and deny the fragility of living as another race in this country. I grew up filling in the “black” circle because I wanted people to see us as better, because I knew we were seen as not as good. Although ethnically I am as white as I am black, it’s never been an option to fill in the “white” circle on a form. I knew that. My teacher who directed me to fill in the “black” circle when I told her my race wasn’t on there knew that. Color has always mattered. It is seen by all of us, whether we like to admit it or not.

While I was taught that everyone was created equally, it was clear from a young age that most people didn’t really believe that–including myself. Why else would I have been so anxious to straighten my hair? Why else was I happy that my skin was lighter than the other black girls’ in my class? No one ever had to say out loud that they thought white was better. In fact no one around me ever did–but I still knew what they believed because I saw it every day.

I saw it, and so did my production coordinator. It’s why I feel specifically compelled to help, protect, and represent my race–and he does not. Our mindsets are born out of necessity–out of what we have seen throughout our lives. If you persistently force me to experience and witness injustice, you can’t then turn around and insist that I pretend that it’s not there. If you can’t see it, please, don’t deny the possibility that it still might exist. I beg you, look harder. You know what would get black people to shut the hell up about race? Make things equal, truly. You wouldn’t hear a peep. Race is not a card we are anxious to play–it’s just the tired hand we’ve been dealt over and over again. If you don’t like groups like Black Lives Matter–by all means, please, stop making them necessary.

 

 

header: nicolas ladino-silva

 

 

34 thoughts on “I See Color

  1. Great blog post. Unfortunately in the UK we do not talk about colour in case we upset people and get labelled racist. It’s a pity as talking about things helps deal with the issues. You are right us white guys have it good, although I have had a little glimpse of how it feels from the other side. I went on holiday with a friend who came to London from Jamaica when she was 9. She was 30 when we went to Tobago together, she made friends with a group of people on the island who were originally from Grenada and Trinidad so we spent most of our time with them and visited local restaurants and bars rather than the tourist places. Even though everyone was very friendly and both my friend and I came from London I felt like an outsider because I was white.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for reading Edward and for your comments. While i’d say your glimpse into feeling what being a minority is like in Tobago is just that–a glimpse, I do wish more white people could at least feel that. I also think that we all could stand to be more self aware and open when it comes to talking about race. People are so scared to be labeled racist–but, maybe they are. And if they are, but they don’t want to be, or don’t want to be seen that way, maybe that self realization could actually change something. The denial of the possibility that one could be racist is infuriating. I am a person of color, I have racist thoughts, I make generalizations. I am human. But I think recognizing that my thoughts are wrong, and that there is hate behind them, is what gives me the chance to be a positive part of the conversation and the hope for change.
      Again, appreciate your comments and time. thanks Edward.

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  2. You have such a way with words. Thank you for being bold and speaking truth – even if it is a little scary. I appreciate how open and real you are in your challenge for all of us to think a little differently.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love the way you put that Deanna–“challenge for all of us to think a little differently.” I feel like you summed up the biggest reason why I write–I always think the world would be better if we just all made an effort to consider more perspectives–ones different than our own. I have to remember to do that myself–not just share my own!! Thank you!! x

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  3. Great points! I was reading an article recently on perceptions of Asian-Americans and it mentioned that when we say “white” we usually mean “without culture”. That’s a pretty broad paintbrush but I think there’s a ring of truth to it.
    The point of the article was that Asian-Americans are hailed as assimilating very well into American culture, but the reason for that perception is that they tend to act “white”. And what does that mean? I’m going to take a leap here and say it means that they often become well-educated and get well-paying jobs.

    Notice that the focus here is NOT on culture, but on economic status.

    So, basically, our society has turned “white” into “successful”.
    And anyone who is not white but is successful is “acting white”.
    And anyone who is not white is….. “unsuccessful”?
    The inherent marginalization in this line of thinking is pretty horrifying; unfortunately, I don’t think a lot of people recognize it.

    I’m white, and I certainly didn’t… I used to be one of those people that was like, “What’s the problem, why don’t we just ignore it and make it go away?” It wasn’t until I went to college and studied criminology and psychology that I realized how insidiously embedded our prejudice is into our society. Living in a city that has has an almost half Latino population for several years has been an eye-opening experience for me too.

    When society’s default is prejudiced, we have to mindfully un-teach it in order to reverse the effects, which is why the task of creating equality is so daunting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “When society’s default is prejudiced, we have to mindfully un-teach it in order to reverse the effects, which is why the task of creating equality is so daunting.” THIS. This so key to everything I think.
      You’ve given me so much here. I’m glad you and the article you are referencing included Asian Americans because they really demonstrate the point you are trying to make and are also often overlooked when the race conversation comes up. To me everything you’ve said points to the fact that race is a lie–that whiteness has been constructed for economic gain. This is something I am eager to explore and write more about–grateful to you for bringing it up here and articulating your important and i think true view, so well. Really glad to have your voice here! Hope you will be speaking up often! x

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  4. I feel incredibly fortunate that I’ve ended up living in South Africa for many reasons, but one of the biggest is that my kids are growing up with exposure to such diversity – whether that be skin color, financial state, religion, language or a mix of all of those and more. Growing up my exposure to anyone non-white was almost non-existent and the whole area was essentially culturally homogenous. I think the notion that some people don’t “see” color is incorrect – even my young kids “see” color, it’s just an irrelevance to them. This excellent post is another reminder to me of how safe and easy my life as a white male has been while giving some great insight from another perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am so anxious to know more about South Africa Nik and what the racial situation is like now with all it’s history. I have heard different things. It seems like a fascinating place for someone to grow up, I think you’re giving your kids such a gift when you make diversity imperative to their education. I definitely think parents have such a big job–how you raise your kids has such an impact on our future. I am really grateful to parents who look to maybe improve upon the limited perspective available to them when they were kids.
      PS–Enjoyed your post on your site SO much! Jammed at work today so I haven’t been able to comment on it yet but I will when I get the chance. Just wanted to tell you that it was the last thing I read last night and it was a joy!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Things are definitely improving here in South Africa but the legacy of the past is enormous and there are so many challenges ahead. There is still an extraordinary amount of inequality and I don’t know if that will ever be resolved – sadly inequality is a factor in almost every country in the world. When I first moved here I remember writing to someone back home and saying that for every thing that infuriates me here on a daily basis there are three things that make me smile – and I’m convinced it’s because of the diversity of the people I meet. I keep promising that I will learn an African language – and perhaps with the kids now learning Xhosa at school it will be the inspiration I need.
        So glad to hear you liked my latest bit of nonsense and I hope my writing put you to sleep haha!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Kelly Lawrence

    Cat, girl you know I first read this like “WWWHHHHAAAATTTT, they got a Black owned cleaning company in there???” LOL! Then, reading more I immediately (without reading your response first) was like “No, don’t say nothing bad about them!” And yes that comes from me feeling a sense of responsibility to “protect mine.” I have always felt the need to look out for us in anyway possible. No one gives us a leg up on anything. I would have said they same as you. let them know what they could do better and give them another shot. Just like you said, it’s something that white people don’t feel the need to do for each other b/c they will ALWAYS be given a chance.
    You know I cringe when I hear someone say “I don’t see color”. What a privilege they have.

    PS….. I miss these convo’s with you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kel!!! I knew you would feel me on this one. I miss having you in the office so much, I have to school everyone on my own!!
      Wanna know what’s so sad? I don’t think it is black owned. I thought it was two individual guys like how the two polish ladies do their own thing, but I found Out recently they belong to a larger company, and I don’t think it’s black owned. It bummed me out. I tried! (Oh and btw, they such at billing, lol).
      Also, feel you on the cringe–it really is such a privileged thing to say, it actually kind of hurts me. How beautiful for you to not have to see color!!
      Miss you lady. So much. Thanks for reading this!! ❤️you!!

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  6. I think very young children don’t see color in people. When my daughter was in preschool, she was surrounded by people of many different colors from the teachers to the children there. My mom said something to my daughter about a “black person” and my daughter honestly had no idea what her grandmother was talking about. Then I told my mom that my daughter doesn’t see color. My daughter is now in middle school and definitely sees color, but I think that’s because of society and what she’s heard other people saying about different races over the years. If only we could all be more child-like!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah I hear a lot of people say this and I definitely think it’s true for a lot of kids-but I think it depends largely upon the circumstances in which they grow up. I saw color immediately. I lived with it. My dad and my mom did not look like each other. I did not look like my mom. I remember the first day of kindergarten when my mom dropped me off one of the little girls asking why I didn’t look like my mom. She wasn’t asking why we didn’t have the same nose, she wanted to know why we weren’t the same color. When I was growing up, being mixed was not as common and people felt very free to make comments and ask questions and judge out loud. There are a lot of people who like to think they are okay with black people, but “draw the line” with mixing. That was something we heard all the time growing up and something my husband and I have heard traveling in the south just a couple years ago.
      My niece who is now 4 asked me when she was 2 1/2 or 3, why I was brown, and why her daddy was brown, and why Papa (my dad, her grandpa) was black. Her mother is white and they will probably largely pass for white most of their lives because they are very light. But that early, she questioned the different colors-of course not in any sort of judgmental or prejudicial way, but it’s clear that she saw the difference because she is living around it everyday. So yeah, I def understand the “kids don’t see color” sentiment, and of course I wish we could all keep all our innocent thoughts and attitudes and not have the world spoil us as we grow up, but I also think it depends on the kid and the environment they grow up in, and how much “color” they are exposed to on a regular basis. When you’re a colored kid–you’re forced to see color-because you are colored. The world doesn’t let you not know or forget is just cause you are little, unfortunately. As soon as you start understanding things, you start to know you are different.

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  7. Great post. Just a couple of comments that probably be all over the place – I’ve been analyzing large data sets, so my brain hurts.

    – I cannot tell you how much it annoys me when people claim that the whole “I do not see color” or my “best friend is (fill in your race or ethnicity of choice).” One of my friends used to say this a lot, until a couple of us in the clique had to check her a couple of times. Her reason was that many whites are so used to seeing themselves in multiple media types of media. So, in a way you do not see color, because no other color really exist (kind of like you mentioned). Whereas folks of color, we learn at a very early age (from our parents and social experiences) that we will be treated very differently because of our racial background. I’m not say that the different treatment will be negative, but you learn at an early age that you are different.

    – With the recent events that have been happening, it annoys me when certain folks say that we should stop bringing up race issues and it will go away. It’s like do you want me, as a black person, to stop talking about race because it makes YOU feel uncomfortable? I’m very rarely an ABM, so I’m pretty sure that I could have a two-way conversation about race in this country without choke slamming a person. One interesting conversation about race took place with one of my classmates while studying abroad in Ecuador. Quito does not have defined bus stops (at least back in ’01), so one has to flag down a bus and jump on the bus while it’s moving. Often times, the bus would not stop or slow down for my classmate – a 6’2” blond hair, blue-eyed guy. He often joked about how that how it must be for a black person to hail a cab in NYC. But with joking around, it allowed us to actually talk about race issues in the States.

    – I like that you brought up the colorism issue in this post, because I experienced that within my own family. For example my father is Ghanaian and black as night and my mother was a very light-skinned black woman. I remember my great grand mother, who passed for white back in day, would degrade my dad because he was African and dark skinned. I mean don’t get me wrong, my dad was a bit of an A-hole back then, but degrade him because of the A-holeness, not his skin color. For a long, time I used to hate (maybe hate is too strong of a word) my skin color. Also, I noticed that my light-skinned cousins would be treated different than my darker cousins and myself. “Oh don’t hit him, because she is light and will bruise.”

    Let me stop here, because my comment is becoming a blog post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your comment may be long Kwame but I’m hanging on every word. So much great stuff here. It is crazy how early that knowledge that we are “different” comes in. Your comment about your cousins is really also at the forefront of my mind. I was close to some of my cousins on my dad’s side but there’s was always a bit of tension between us and I know part of it was because of skin color. Our white mom made it so we got a little less ashy then they did!
      All jokes aside, your example about that difference of treatment within your own family makes me sad. It makes me feel like we have all been brainwashed by this bullshit system.
      Thanks for all of this Kwame, really great for me to read–so thought provoking! x

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Although that aspect of my family is a little sad, I will say that we are kind of close as adults. For example, I’m not upset that my great grandmother or my great aunt treated us differently. Also, many of my cousins, who now have children, do not inflict colorism on their children. It is very promising that we have learned from the mistakes from the earlier generations (perhaps, “mistake” is too harsh of a word).

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks for this post! As a white person it’s so important to “look harder” and read/hear things from the perspective of those affected. Maybe it will be similar to things you’ve read before, or maybe it will contain a nugget that will further open your mind to something you’ll never know first hand. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome Jess, thank you for reading and having an open mind. Reading your comment made me think about something I thought about a lot while I was writing this. I know that white people have stories too. Everyone has challenges. The race thing is tough because it has affected generations of people and has really shaped our country. Now there are a lot of us who want to make sure our country goes in the right direction and part of that is forcing honest conversations that are uncomfortable. So much of these conversations is US telling YOU how things are. And I think having people like you are who are actually willing to listen is the first step and huge help towards more understanding. But we have to listen too. I think both sides have to share stories. I think sometimes we generally shut white people down and we’re just like, “no stop, you’re racist, you’re wrong.” Amy maybe sometimes they are racist. And it’s really almost an impossible feeling as a black person to think “not only do I have to be oppressed, but I have to listen to the feelings of my oppressor? FUCK THAT!” I understand that attitude because I feel it deep inside me, but I’m not sure it gets us anywhere, I’m not sure it creates change and moves us forward. Anyway, you just spurred some more thoughts in me, than, you for that. x

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Even George Costanza couldn’t get away with the “I don’t see color” lie.

    MLK didn’t deny seeing color, but rather dreamed of the day when we would all be judged by the content of our character. We all have much to overcome. Thoughtful words like yours bring us together and give us hope.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Great post, Cat, and I can well imagine the challenge of tuning in and writing it. As your previous commentator noted, I have some small experience of that by being female. Not the same, and with similarities. I’ve many stories I could share on gender bias and issues, including some that go the unexpected direction. But my next appt is now, so I’ll sign off. Cheers and thanks to you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah Steph, these posts take a lot more out of me–and they used to make me very anxious when I posted them, but that is starting to lessen with practice.
      I’m kind of hoping you might share some of the gender bias stories you are talking about, I’d be so interested to hear. x

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    1. Ahm thank you thank you. You are right there, these posts do take something different–writing about running is not nearly as draining! I really appreciate you reading and thanks so much for your kind words–they’ll give me some of what i need to write the next one. x

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  11. This is a great blog! I know it doesn’t really compare, but I’ve spent most of my life doing ‘a Man’s job’ and I guess I’ve just come to accept that it is viewed that way. But just as race has always been an issue, and really shouldn’t be! So is gender. Just today I raised an eyebrow when asking about hiring a chainsaw, and explaining I had all my tickets. It is still looked at as slightly weird, mostly by the older generation. And I’m regularly mistaken for a man when working, as its what most people expect to see climbing up a tree.

    I think things are changing, for both gender and race equality, but still not fast enough. In this ‘Modern world’ why we can’t all just be seen as ‘Human beings’, whose skin colour and gender are irrelevant to who they are, and what they are capable of is beyond me! I’m also Gay, and the labels that seem to come with that also baffle me. At the end of the day we should all just want to be happy, and be there for each other, and enjoy life instead of being jealous or afraid of others. Can’t we all just get along? (Jack Nicholson – Mars Attacks)

    Love your work chick, always thought provoking xx

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Debbie. I think there are huge systemic and institutional reasons why gender and skin color will never be irrelevant. Subjugating and dehumanizing groups of people has worked to the economic advantage of a smaller group for centuries, and it’s not something people in power will let go of easily.
      Now I am anxious to know so much more about what you do for a living–you sound pretty badass! But see there–that. Why do I think you’re badass? Cause you’re doing a “man’s” job? It’s crazy how embedded these ideas are in us, we don’t even realize. Really, I just think it’s badass that you do something so physical for work–I often wondered what that would be like, so it fascinates me.
      Thanks for chiming in! I’m always curious to see which of my readers will voice their opinions when I touch on more serious topics–I so appreciate that you are willing to put yourself out there! x

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Are you saying running isn’t serious?! Joke 😉 actually really like that you talked about something so personal, and also something I imagine alot of people are uncomfortable to face up to. But it is still a sad reality, and as you say it benefits people with money and therfore people who pull strings. But I guess if we can do our best to teach the new generations that everyone is equal, it’s a step the right way. Or have a massive revolution which I’m all for 😂.
        Well I’m a trained tree surgeon but have also done forestry work and tractor driving since I left school…..long time ago! I’ve always been in the minority, but never think about it till someone else brings it up, or calls me mate 😂 I love physical work, but as I get older my body doesn’t 😔 it is great fun though, and the banter I get with the lads is awesome 😁
        I’ll always be happy to chime in 😂 x

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s so crazy, I was listening to NPR the other day and they were talking about immigrants and a guy who did forestry work called in and said that it is some of the most physically demanding and hard labor and that he has a lot of trouble keeping American workers on. He said the work is just to physically taxing and they won’t do it. Now I am even more impressed with you lady!! xx

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      3. Haha it is hard work for sure, and I’m often asked how I’ve got my physique and what gym work I do, but in truth it’s all down to the work. I’m very lucky to have been paid to keep fit and strong. But it does take its toll. And as I edge nearer to 40 I’m finding it harder to recover from the full on long days. I have to also say that our forestry doesn’t always have the epic trees of your country! But we all work hard at what we do, and it definitely gets into your blood 😊 xx

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    2. In my twenties I worked in construction for a bit. I took it as a compliment that the men I worked with saw me as “equal” or “one of the guys”. Yes, I was lucky enough to work in an environment where I was seen as an equal contributor, and I never felt like anyone thought I couldn’t handle the same work the boys did; however, looking back, being “one of the guys” also meant being cool with lewd sexual jokes and not being offended at unwanted sexual advances.
      It’s like, ok, we’ll treat you as equal in the workplace as long as we can still objectify you. I didn’t see how twisted that was… I was immature and eager for acceptance at the time (not taking life very seriously, partying a lot), so I felt like by letting this happen I was being, I don’t know…progressive? Tolerant? Taking one for the team and representing women?
      I don’t know, I certainly don’t blame myself for not seeing things for what they were, I still had a lot of growing up to do, but if I was working in that environment now, you can be sure I wouldn’t be putting up with that kind of thing…. and I bet I wouldn’t be accepted as “one of the guys” so quickly either!

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