My parents grew up during the civil rights era. My dad was born in Alabama in the 40s, a time when segregation was alive and well. My mom grew up in Detroit, when Motown was making it’s mark on the world. As a result, they very much wanted their children to know about the history, the culture, and the journey of their people. Even now I know more about African American History than I do about any other type of history. It wasn’t anything I learned in school, but what my own parents taught me. I’m very proud of being black, but all my life there have been a series of opposing environments that confuse that blackness and make it difficult to feel like I have a place.
There are moments in my life when I’m very aware of my blackness…
When we were reading Huckleberry Finn in 8th Grade English, the teacher would have us take turns reading it out loud and reading along, like you do. There was a section of dialogue being read and in that dialogue, the word “nigger” appeared. I thought nothing of it. Though it’s a difficult and hurtful word, within the context of Huckleberry Finn, it was both accurate and appropriate. The person reading saw the word, stopped reading aloud and looked at me, as did every single one of my classmates. They were all silent as if waiting for me to have some kind of reaction, or for me to give them permission to say it. I don’t remember what my response was in that moment, but I remember wondering if my classmates saw me in that word.
School in and of itself was a very conflicting experience for me. My school was predominantly Asian and white. There were maybe 10 black students in my year of 150+. The black kids were all friends too; well, all except me. They didn’t like me. They never accepted me. More often then not, they forgot about me. Outside of school, I did a program called Double Discovery Center, sort of an academic after school program, which happened to be only Black or Hispanic kids. This is where I met my first boyfriend. He lived and went to school in Harlem. Sometimes I’d meet him after school and he and his friends would always comment on my “whiteness,” wondering why I sounded white, why I went to a good school, why I was trying so hard to fit in. This is a comment I’ve heard time and time again in my life.
It seemed, for most of my teenage years, that I was too white for the black kids and too black for the white kids.
College was an interesting experience. I loved my school but there were certain things about living in North Carolina that made me feel unwelcome. There were the overt and in-your-face acts of racism… being called the n-word, that sort of thing. But it was more the discreet things that bothered me
Discreet and unspoken racism was more difficult to process; it was easier to convince myself it might just be paranoia… when it’s a little behavior, or a casual comment, I wonder if I’m overreacting or reading too much into it.
Here’s what I mean… A friend and I went to a restaurant once and the waitress refused to serve us. Several other groups of people arrived after us and were seated, served and received their food in ample time, where my friend and I were sat at a table and completely ignored. Well, not completely… she begrudgingly brought is some water. Multiple attempts to catch her attention so we could order went completely unnoticed. Eventually, we left, leaving a complaint with the management on our way out. We never discussed it.
There was the time I walked into a clothing store on the campus high street, and the three employees who were in the store stopped their conversation the second I walked in. They didn’t greet me or even speak to me, they just watched as I walked through the store. One of the employees began to follow me around the store, pretending to tidy up displays but always conveniently less than two feet away. As I left the shop, I heard one of the saleswoman ask if I’d stolen anything. Another time, a girl in one of my classes told me I was the first one she’d ever met (as in the first person of color), touched my skin repeatedly and congratulated me on whatever sports scholarship I’d managed to get in order to attend this school. When I told her I wasn’t on a scholarship, she replied that it must have been costing my parents an absolute fortune.
Even as I write this, I wonder whether I was just reading into it too much, or whether these things did in fact happen because of the color of my skin.
Now that I live in the UK, my thoughts and experiences with race are changing. They’re always changing but I can sense a cultural shift in how I’m viewing my racial identity. Many of my friends of color can identify where they’re from. Kristabel, for example, talks about her experiences and she touches on her Jamaican roots. Other women I’ve spoken to can tell me their family history in a similar way. It’s a point of pride I think, and one thing that I can’t relate to.
Most African-American families can only trace their roots back a few generations. Not any of them could tell you what country their ancestors come from.
I could give you a whole history lesson, but it dates back to slavery when families were intentionally separated as a form of control. Even though I don’t know where my family comes from, I’ve had lots of people comment that I look like I could be Eritrean or Ethiopian. In reality, I’m a mix of a few things and I have no idea what they are. Being African-American in and of itself means that I lack those roots. When people ask about my background, I say that my family is from Maryland, because we can trace our family tree back that far (about the 1700s I think!). The usual reply is, “no, I mean, where are you from?” I’m once again left with that feeling that I don’t really have a place to fit in, coupled with a feeling of being pushed into a box when they inevitably suggest that I look like I could be one thing or another. The difference is, I feel like I now have the voice to address this, and explain my feelings, tell my story. Starting a conversation is perhaps the most important part of this crazy thing called race. I’m very aware that I live in a country where race means something very different than the place that I’m from. To be honest, I feel safer. I feel like I can talk about these things, and no one is going to question it. I have yet to feel threatened in any way because of the color of my skin. There are still leaps and bounds of steps to be taken, like more diverse representation and addressing intersectional politics, but since moving to the UK, I do feel I’ve found new ways to embrace and accept my blackness.