Coloring Outside the Lines: How Race Has Affected My Life
Who I Am Again
Sometimes I have to remember who I am. Sound funny? No I don't mean like that. I have to remind myself that I have a race, gender, social class and so on. The truth is I don't see myself as a label or a demographic a lot of times when others do. I see myself as a person. And while I struggle from time to time to see the same in others, it is worth it to live in such a way that is not defined by social limits.
When I was younger, I had no boundaries or ideas about anything related to my identity. In fact, I was so silly and confused that I thought I was white until I was about five. My mom finally told me the truth when I was talking to her about something and suddenly was like, "We're white right?" I'm sure she wanted to cry but she laughed and told me the truth. And all I remember was being like "okay" and moving on.
And as I grew older, I realized not every kid felt the way I did. In fact, it was just the opposite. Some kids took their racial identity so far that they projected their feelings on others in such a way that was sometimes too sad to think of. But in all those experiences with my race and identity, I can say it's all been an interesting, strange, and sometimes fun ride.
I grew up in the south around two main racial groups, African Americans and Whites. Being African American or Black as a kid in the 1990s was a lot different than what both of my parents endured in the tensions of segregation and Jim Crow during the 1950s and 1960s. My mom was only part of the third integrated class to graduate high school in our area. While my dad was one of the last three classes to graduate from an all-black high school.
Even though my mom graduated from an integrated class, all reunion activities are essentially segregated. The black alumni from my mom's class and the black alumni from the other high school reunite while her own classmates who are white have their own activities. When I asked her about this once all she said, "That's just how it's been. We have never really felt like a class. We were thrown together after integration. We didn't hate each other, we just didn't know each other."
While this situation has occurred many times over throughout the years, it never ceases to surprise me. But what I failed to realize was that the context of the racial tensions was greater than the actual assumed "mistrust" of others. White classmates did not know enough about black culture other than what their parents and the media fed them while they same can be said for black students.
I would like to think my experience was different. It was, yet it was not. I had classmates of different races at every level through college barring preschool. I never thought about it until now but preschool in many ways is like the womb. You're protected and cuddled while slowly being pushed out in a painful and real way. However, unlike the womb- the affects of preschool show up quite quickly.
By the time I got to elementary school, my parents knew that I was bound and determined to be my own version of Dougie Howser (minus the name and MD of course). But I soon realized that me being Dougie was going to be harder than I thought. The first few years of my elementary education, we were all in the same classes physically but developmentally and educationally- it was more like an episode of Survivor.
I was diligent about doing my work and excelled easily, as did some of my other classmates who happened to be white. By the time we got to third grade, we all tested and some of us qualified for SAGE (Soaring Achievements, Great Expectations) which helped us do more nontraditional classroom activities to enhance our intellectual development. What I did not realize was that I would be the only African-American student in the entire program.
By sixth grade, I was not completely alone, at least academically speaking. SAGE was now a group of classes and we got to learn outside the box. We read A Christmas Carol and then turned it into a sixth grade production for the entire school. We read The Hobbit ( I try to forget that ) and had a Hobbit party where some poor fool actually was Bilbo Baggins (can't really forget that performance!).
All the fun we had helped me partially forget that I was the only black kid in the SAGE class on my side of the hall. The girl who eventually became my best friend was the other. But none of the other black kids partially forgot anything, they had a better recall than I did and proceeded to call me on it. "Why do you only talk to white people?" was a common question and of course, my answer was dumb enough to make the walking target of my grade.
i did not think of it that way. My friends and classmates were people where those I spent the most time with. Yes they happened to be white, but I also friends of the same race. I eventually grew to ignore these people because they had taken enough from me by alleging I did not appreciate who I was.
I did, I have, and I always will. I have had the wonderful opportunity to learn about black history not only in classrooms but through extracurricular activities and my own family. Race is a part of my life, but it is not all of my life.
The Right Notes
I really thought that everyone grew up like me when i was a kid. However, I was soon aware of different realities. And I am not just talking about two parents, their own room, or even just the ability to ask ridiculous questions without being chastised. I am also talking about being exposed to music and the arts.
My parents had always been musical people. My dad even tried to form his own version of the Temptations in high school and my mom has long thought of herself as the missing piece from American Idol. Growing up, they both exposed me to all different types of music.
My mom listened to everything from the British Invasion fad bands to Prince and Rick James. And my dad essentially is a walking encyclopedia for the Motown sound. And while they each turned me on to great music, I also discovered music on my own.
In middle school, I started watching TRL and paying attention to music of my own age group more. But it was quite easy considering my classmates were into music as well. There were the resident pop lovers like myself, the rap metal heads who were into Korn and Slipknot, and the all encompassing hip-hop heads. Not every genre matched the race it was associated with. And I certainly was not embracing the music that is stereotypically associated with race.
I did not care but again, so many people associate your identity with your choices so of course there were times where friends and family members would laugh, however it did not change my mind. If music were a color, it would not give us all that it has. Besides, what fun what it be if it was?
When I think of music that really touches me, all I can think of is beauty. And to me, pure beauty has no color.
Going to college was a relative no brainer to me, the only serious question I had was what college I would attend. As a teen, I had attended Duke Young Writer's Camp and decidedly fell in love with the campus. I liked how the curriculum was focused on providing a comprehensive education and it also happened to be located a few hours from the folks.
However, my parents were more concerned with the price tag attached to being a Blue Devil. I will not say how much it is, but let's just say had a I decided to attend Duke, I would be working as many jobs as possible to be debt free by retirement. Eventually, I switched the lighter shade of blue and became a UNC Tar Heel.
However, it became a topic of interest to my classmates. Particularly, those I had known and attended class with who were considering Historically Black Colleges and Universities. I had nor have issues with anyone attending these great academic pillars who were not that long ago the only places where black people could get a post-secondary education. Yet some felt it was imperative to capitalize on the black college experience these schools offered rather than being one of a few at a traditional or Predominantly White University (PDW).
In fact, one of my classmates who was a fan of UNC-Chapel Hill and considering attending changed his mind and something I won't forget. "You know what most UNC black students do on the weekends, they go to HBCUs since they don't have anyone to hang out with." In my mind, I could tell he was joking from his tone but I also knew that was one of the many reasons he decided not to attend.
For me, the words of no one could sway me. Not even my cousin who said she wanted to attend an HBCU for the dynamic experience that many not be the same type of experience she thought a PDW could not give her.
I had grown up around different people and people who were quite similar to me. What I wanted out of my education was a complete experience not only of a great education but great connections, a wonderful student life, and a diverse and passionate memory for the years to come.
And I have to say, I got that and more. I met people from different backgrounds, religions, races, and everything else. I got to taste foods and have adventures that I never thought possible. But what it did teach me was that following my heart pays off far more than trying to fit a cultural standard or expectation that continues to hold some back more than others.
The Crayon Complex
I have been thinking about race a lot, especially given that this is Black History Month and in the year 2012 we have lost two major icons, Whitney Houston and Don Cornelius within this very month. While we celebrate their lives, we also remember they helped give the world a multi-faceted look into a single race. And like many across and between races, they help us see that life should never be purely lived in black and white.
In the 2010 census, the multi-ethnic option was finally added. I wondered, what took them so long? Well, the truth is, it took as all a lot longer than we should have ever allowed ourselves. Given the United States' bumpy racial history, it is obvious that race still is something we all struggle with.
However, the fact of the matter is it is little more than a social construct that has become a political tool, cultural weapon, and legal barrier to many who do not deserve it. We have tried to visualize our lives as crayons. Crayons in the sense that we can only be in the slot we are designated to be, shine only as far as what has been given to us.
Yet, in reality we all know that crayons and colors in general are more beautiful in dynamic harmony than in set solos. And once we all realize and work within that framework, we will all be in a better place for it. However, I cannot fool myself behind my own words. What has divided us took centuries and it will take even longer, if not ever to erase it.
But my deepest wish is for everyone to really know that we are who we are, not what a census or survey tells us. We are our mother's children, not our enemies' pawns. And no matter what life throws at us, we have to live beyond the crayon box that race has given us.