Ever since I was small, I knew there was something different about me. At that age, I couldn't quite put my finger on it. A natural entertainer, as my parents can attest, I tried anything to get someones attention: a half-assed cartwheel, acting as all the characters from a TV show I saw. And if nobody would pay attention to me, I would line up all my stuffed animals, pick a book off the shelf, and read to them (with different voices, of course). I was a normal kid, or so I thought. It was when I reached elementary school, however, that I realized that what I thought were my similarities to my peers, actually differed in one key way.
"If someone were to lick you, would you taste like chocolate?"
My family moved from Monterrey, California in the mid-90s to a small town in Southern Oregon named Jacksonville. An old mining town, Jacksonville is about a 10 minute drive to the nearest big - to Oregon standards - city, Medford. A move like this isn't seen as something out of the ordinary, families move all the time. While that is true, families like mine don't move into Jacksonville without getting noticed. See, I stem from an interracial family. If, for some reason, you're not sure what I'm talking about, let me explain:
My parents are white and have non-white children.
Unable to have children of their own, they decided to adopt. The adoption process is a difficult one, regardless of race. The late-80's/early-90's was no exception. There have been horror stories shared from my parents that would leave anybody dumbfounded. Most of the adoption agencies, at that time, were looking to keep interested families adopting children adopting those that would have an "easier transition when they're older". Translation: we want white kids with white parents, black kids with black parents, etc. With this logic, families that wanted nothing more than to love a child, regardless of race or gender, had to fight to create a family.
Through sure will and gumption, my parents were able to adopt children from different backgrounds. K---, LatinX/American-Indian; I---, Irish/African-American; and myself, African-American. So, moving to a conservative, "God-fearing", mostly white town in Southern Oregon was one my parents took seriously. Fortunately, my parents prepared us for such a move:
"People will say things," they would tell us. "They'll say things that are hurtful; that aren't nice. They may say these things because they may have never seen someone that looks like you before, or because they're scared. The best thing you can do is to not get mad, but teach them that not everybody is the same." They taught us that although we may look different on the outside, we are no different on the inside; it's your character that counts in the long run. That's why I always thought that I was the same as the white kids, until we were all in school together.
I got the ice-cream taste question in kindergarten. The "can I touch your hair" in first grade. The "you don't sound black" in third. By fourth grade, I had become a professional deflector of microaggressions. But it was fourth grade, while on the playground, I was called a Nigger.
I will not say "The N Word". I want Nigger to linger in the air like smog. I want the word to sting you, as a reader, like it did me in fourth grade. I knew what Nigger meant. He knew what Nigger meant. And he said it to me directly, without any sort of remorse. When the bell rang for us to go in, I was in a state of shock. There were only a handful of other black kids, roughly six, at this school of about one hundred fifty. I didn't know who I could go to. I didn't tell an adult right away, for some fear nothing would happen. I was in line telling a friend next to me what was said, when my teacher heard and stopped the line.
"Don't you ever let someone call you that," he said in his booming voice. He then asked his name, walked to the principals office, and pulled the student (whom was in sixth grade) out of class. My parents were called. The kid was suspended for three days and had to write an apology to me. The three days passed and it was time for him to give his written apology. He stood in front of the room, and laughed the whole way through reading it.
The rest of my time in school, I would always feel that I was the Nigger in class. And if you called me that, all you had to do was write an apology note and laugh through it. I felt I couldn't be taken seriously. Even writing this now, it hurts to think that something like that was allowed to happen. It makes me wonder where that kid is now and what kind of person he's become. I'm sure he doesn't think about it.
As for me, I was able to make it through. I realized, that like India.Arie, whose song is the title of this posting, I am not my hair. I am not this skin. I AM the soul that lives within.
Title: "I Am Not My Hair"
Artist: India.Arie featuring Akon
Year Released: 2006