Because people still see you as a n*~@$*er. You never forget the first time you realize that, when you hear the word and it pierces you like a knife---a jagged, fucked up, twisted blade, catching tissue, organ and bone as it cuts to the core.
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I was seven.
I had spent every Saturday traveling from our tiny Upper East Side apartment to bustling, brown 152nd St. and Amsterdam to take ballet and tap at the Dance Theater of Harlem. My kindergarten teacher had suggested the idea and since my parents were into exposing us to all sorts of activities, they signed me up. My mom never said it but I know she thought it would be good for me to be around other black people. Dance Theater of Harlem is as serious, hardcore, and classical as it gets, requiring my mother to wrangle my hair into a perfect bun every weekend. If a single hair was out of place the teachers would spot it. So, I would sit beneath her after pulling on my stiff black leotard and pink tights and stare down at my pre-pubescent belly dreading having to prance in front of mirrors, teachers and other little girls. We would pull up to class in a bright blue 73’ Volkswagen beetle with my bright white mom sitting in the driver’s seat with her blond hair in two milk maid style braids, trying not to let my brother and I see how uncomfortable she was. Everything about my family is so visible, couldn’t we just have a regular car like everyone else?
I’d slide down in the faux leather seat so no one would see me. And it wasn’t in my head, West Harlem let us know. “What’re YOU doing up HERE?” a man said to my mother one day as she sat with my brother at the playground. This wouldn’t happen if we were with Daddy.
Then comes the audition, not for a major role but something where I’d get to dance near Broadway and wear a tutu. I was terrified and still don’t know why I agreed to try out. I think it’s because the idea of dancing in a beautiful costume on stage still sounded like being princess for a day, so appealing that it beat out the terror of a public performance. While we were waiting for my turn we ate at a diner near Carnegie Hall. Stop staring at us? Why can’t we just blend in? Yes, she’s my mother you idiots, the woman who takes me to a neighborhood where she isn’t welcome every weekend so I can dance where my brown skin fits in. Turn around!
The rest of the details are foggy. There are little white girls running around a giant auditorium while their moms sit idly by with hopeful looks in their eyes. There may have been brown girls too but not enough to make me feel safe. I ended up playing with a little white girl and it ended with her doing something mean. I must’ve told her that I would tell her mom to make her apologize. “My mother would never make me apologize to a nigger like you.” Whoever said that words can’t hurt is gravely, gravely mistaken
I didn’t tell my mom. I was embarrassed, ashamed and heartbroken. My seven year old mind thought that maybe if I tucked this ugliness away and never talked about it with anyone that it would be like it never happened. On some level I was scared my own mother would see me as inferior. Yep, there was self-hate alright. There was also a desire to spare my mother the pain of her daughter’s broken heart
Please don’t mistake this for a tale of the “tragic mulatto.” We all have our sad stories and many far worse than this one. My aim is simply to share my experience and to continue shedding light on the facets of racism’s darkness. It is only through honesty that we can all hope to heal; white black and brown. There is no shame in wanting to belong, to matter and to fit in. And there is no shame in admitting that it hurts when someone calls you a name laced with 400 years of hate
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