The day I learned I was black
April 30, 2016 at 7:30 am
I knew I was black, I just tied no more significance to that fact than I would a freckle, a mole or right- and left-handedness. My black was merely a circumstantial genetic effect. As a kid, it never occurred to me that this pigmentation should somehow limit potential or signal inferiority. My Mountain View, California elementary school was a melting pot of diversity. My friends were Hispanic, Asian and Caucasian. The difference of complexion, hair texture, and accent among the four of us was never cause for anxiety. In fact, it mirrored the world reflected on Sesame Street, The Cosby Show and the many racially harmonious characters that charmed children’s television programming in the ’80s. It wasn’t until the day my Vietnamese playmate told me she could no longer play with me because her daddy said my people were stupid and lazy, that I first sensed something was off.
By the time I reached the 4th grade, my family had moved to a small town in Alabama where I became quick friends with a girl in my class who happened to be white. I absolutely adored my new best friend. When she got a Caboodles cosmetics kit for Christmas, I had to have one too. When she told me that Julia Roberts was her favorite actress, I became obsessed with the movie, Pretty Woman. Naturally, when her birthday rolled around, I could barely contain my excitement about the party that she had been talking up for several weeks. When the day finally arrived for her to distribute invitations, I anxiously awaited mine. After school was dismissed and I had yet to receive my invite, I asked my friend if she had forgotten it. Noticeably baffled by my request, she replied, “Black people aren’t allowed in my house.” She said it as if it was evident. She seemed as confused by my request for an invitation as I was by the absence of it. Again, I struggled to process why my skin insisted on sabotaging me.
It was around this time that I began to pick up on this dynamic in the adult world surrounding me. I didn’t really have a name for it, but I felt it when running errands with my family. I noticed it when the friendly banter of the bank teller gave way to curt, snappy responses as my dad approached the counter. It was evident in how black people measured their validity in direct proximity to the acceptance of white people. It showed up in the timid smiles and awkward small talk between black’s and white’s as southern hospitality negotiated the dictates of the social hierarchy. It was pure theater with an unspoken script to which everyone around me seemed well-versed. Clearly my black had committed a crime and framed me as the culprit. Every day, at every interaction, the onus would be mine to convince the audience that I wasn’t guilty.
I learned that reporting these inequities or celebrating myself in spite of them only invited further disdain. The social construct made it easier to direct my contempt inward at my black instead of outward at the system that indicted it. As I grew older I came to understand these experiences as racism. This dynamic would greet me in virtually every facet of my life from college to the boardroom and beyond. I chose to accept the burden of consciousness with the understanding that mastering this duplicity would not safeguard me against the institutionalized burden of my ethnicity.
It’s impossible to quantify the weight that being born black in a biased society has on the human spirit. What is certain is that whether or not we are aware of it, no matter where we fall on the scale from Stacey Dash to Kendrick Lamar, at some point we all discover what it means to be black and adapt accordingly.