This post was originally published on Then Came Isaiah in February 2010. In light of Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s recent remarks and similar questionable celebrity behavior I found myself reminiscent of this emotion.
When I was in the fourth grade my mom took me out of the school I was going to in my neighborhood and put me in a school about forty-five minutes across town. She said I came home one day bragging about the 100% I had gotten on a test and when she looked it over, she realized it was full of errors. After examining my school for a few weeks thereafter, she realized it was not a mistake… the teachers weren’t grading my papers properly. So, she put me in one of the top private schools in a wealthy neighborhood where I was one of three brown faces in the whole school (the other two were twins).
I was nervous because up until that point I had gone to predominately black schools but my mom put me at ease assuring me that I always made friends quickly and everyone liked me. She even reminded me that my best friend from summer camp, Sarah, was white… and we weren’t all that different. Sarah even got me a black Ken doll for my birthday – which in the eighties, was impossible to find. So, with my stylish new hairdo and cute new uniform I started my new school.
And she was right…
… at first.
I made fast friends with two girls in the class, Lisa and Clara. I remember my first slumber party at Clara’s house. We danced to Material Girls by Madonna and painted each other’s nails. I loveddd Madonna but in my neighborhood, it was all about hip hop and my brother’s wouldn’t have me blasting a Madonna record. But hey – I taught them the running man, all about my curls and cornrows and my adoration of LL Cool J and it was great. I stayed me – but became a better me, because I didn’t have to just be one side of me – I could listen to my Madonna and my Salt N Pepper.
Anyway, Lisa’s mom used to pick a number of us kids up from school in the afternoon. She would take most of the kids home but because I didn’t live in the area, she would take me back to her house and my mom would come get me after work. It was a great set up because Lisa and I were great friends. One afternoon, I was running to get in her mom’s van and I squeezed into the last seat in the front row. I must have pushed passed another one of my classmates, Gaby, on her way to the van because when she got in the car she was maadddd. She wanted the seat and I took it.
Not one to be intimidated I said, “What’s your problem?”
“You’re in my seat.” She snorted.
“It doesn’t have your name on it.” I responded.
She stared at me for a minute. Keep in my mind – back then, “not having your name on it” was a pretty awesome comeback.
I could see her struggling to say something. If I close my eyes, I can still see her face as she struggled to say something.
And then she said…
She spat it – like it was a dirty word. Like I needed to be reminded that I was different, less than, a transplant into her world. I was quiet. No one ever said that to me before. No one ever told me I was black and made me feel bad about it.
A few months later, I had a crush on a boy named Jon, who was also my classmate. I wrote him a note.
“Do you like me? Yes or No.”
He called me a Nigger.
I never cried so hard in my life.
I will always remember my kind music teacher who stood with me in the cubby closet until I stopped crying.
Funny thing was, I found out years later that Jon was biracial.
I bounced back but I was guarded. For awhile, I was scared to feel too accepted, sing my Madonna songs too loudly, for fear that everyone was just waiting… waiting for me to cross that invisible line and be reminded.
For the most part, I can look back on my days at that school fondly. I still keep in touch with many of my friends and afterwards, I continued to go to schools were I was in the vast minority and that was okay… I knew who I was… but I was guarded still – just a little.
I am an adult now and I move in many circles. I love everything that defines me and being a women of color is just the icing on the cake for me. I feel like so many things define me that I will never fill anyone’s stereotype. I want my son to feel the same way. I am 6’1, my husband is 6’4… my son will be a tall, beautiful black man. For many – he will be scary, built for athletics… etc. I want him to always know that I love him completely – he can be whoever he wants and I will love him – he can be a clog dancing gay man and that’s okay – I just expect him to be who he is.
Last week, I read about John Mayer’s statements in Playboy and it brought me back.. If you haven’t heard about it and don’t feel like reading it – aside from some insane things about his ex girlfriends, he said that the fact that he has a large black audience gives him an “hood pass” or a “nigger pass.” He also compared his penis to a white supremacist because he doesn’t date black women. Sadly, I have always loved John Mayer’s music. The first time I heard Your Body Is A Wonderland, I was in college and I heard him sing it acoustic on The Late Show. I thought… wowowow. I felt all tingly and I wanted to be in love. Apparently, I wasn’t actually relating to the music when I bought his album… I was handing him a Nigger Pass.
I remembered that little girl again.
The one shocked in the carpool van.
Crying in the cubby closet.
I was just reminded that no matter how dynamic of a human being I am, no matter how complex and multi-faceted… for some people, my skin color will be all they see. Believe it or not, I forgot for a second – so caught it in my own class-ism… elitism… my belief that somewhere along the line, I crossed the line and no one cared anymore.
Hey – Barack Obama is President.
I thought everyone saw me.
It made me sad last week… because it hasn’t changed and although I can handle it, I am painfully aware that I will have to feel the reality all over again through my children’s eyes and I am pretty sure that will hurt worse.