When A Racist Substitute Tells You You’re Lucky
A substitute teacher told me I was lucky today.
She was thin and pale and smelled like the nursing homes we used to sing at in elementary school—I felt bad for thinking this, but felt worse when my eighth grade student came into class and yelled, “Mister, it smells like straight-up fish tank in here!” I told the students to be respectful and mimed for them to “cut it out.” They said she was too old. They didn’t want to talk to her.
The substitute told me about how it was impossible for her to get a different job once employers saw that her graduation year was “somewhere in the ’70s.” She was aware of the ageism working against her. She had a master’s degree and went to law school back when she was one of only two women in her class. I’m 23 and have worked as a tutor in this classroom for the entire school year. She confessed to me that she didn’t know how to relate to “kids these days.” She handed them the worksheet and told them they could color when they were finished.
The substitute told me I was lucky because of the way that I looked.
She wanted to know if I was Hispanic like most of the students at the school.
“I’m Black. My dad is Black, my mom is White.”
“Really!?” Her eyes got wide.
She said she saw it now.
“Joplin,” she said when I mentioned to her where I was from, “isn’t there Ku Klux Klan activity around there?”
I told her I thought there used to be, but it probably wasn’t so prominent anymore, at least not in the city. I had no idea if this was true or not, but it felt like the easiest thing to say in the moment. I remembered reading a local newspaper article in high school about an ex-klansman turned area church minister in nearby Oklahoma. He had these unnaturally bright blue eyes that followed me beyond the page. I remember thinking that was what the anti-Christ could look like, a topic we discussed in Sunday school sometimes. At what point do you fully denounce your prejudices and are you no longer a cross-burning, human-lynching racist?
She insinuated that I must not love going back home, which is sometimes true.
“Townsfolk probably say ‘let me go and grab my white hood’ once they’re at home.”
She could tell I didn’t think it was funny.
“Your dad must have been light,” she told me. I’ve gotten that a lot as I’ve grown older and moved away from home. No one questions my racial identity there — but in more diverse cities I’ve learned that how I’m read racially gets murkier. I told her that no, in fact, he wasn’t. My dad is brown-skinned.
After she said I was lucky, she smiled. She thought it was funny.
She told me about “the Black woman” who came in the room earlier to work with students with “behavior problems.” She said the woman seemed nice and wondered what degrees she had. She wondered what degrees I wanted to have. I told her where I was going to graduate school next year and where I had been accepted. She asked me why I wouldn’t go to Columbia. I was honest and told her that the tuition was too expensive.
“You’re Black, why don’t you take advantage of that?”
I tried to explain that things didn’t work that way.
“Blacks get money for everything. The Asians are trying to sue those schools up East because of it… you know how Asians are.”
I winced. I tried to change the subject and derail the train headed straight toward blatant racism. I kept looking at D’Andre and Diandra, two of the Black students in the class. I hoped the sub wouldn’t roll her eyes at the “names those people come up with” like the last one did. Luckily she forgot to call roll.
“I’m taking a break for water,” I lied, after assisting the last student who had wanted my help.
I just sat in a different room until the period was over. I had reached my limit. I thought about what she said.
“Well, you got lucky. You could’ve come out much darker… you look good.”
What she said was messed up, but I knew I’d get home to a newsfeed full, as it has been for years (no longer months), of in-memoriams for Black men and Black boys who don’t quite look the same as I do.
Steffan is a Black, biracial, southwest-Missouri-raised, creative nonfiction writer. He graduated from Washington University in St. Louis where he studied Psychology, Writing, and Spanish and will begin a Creative Writing MFA program in fall 2015. Steffan owes his love of writing to James Baldwin and enjoys writing and reading pieces that give the personal experience a provocative and political edge. Follow him on Twitter @steffantriplett.
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