July 7, 2016 by wedandwanderlust
For me, the reality of being brown, or as society says it “black”, has be an underlying current in my life…
Or, so I thought.
I am as a first generation American, third child to parents who immigrated from Jamaica to seek out better opportunity for themselves, and subsequently their children. Race was never really a huge topic of discussion. Our family has many colors. Our friends and community were also composed of many colors.
“Out of many, one people.” While growing up in America, this Jamaican motto was truly a foundation that my heart and mind were built on. South Florida truly allowed for a beautiful melting pot of beliefs, ethnicities, religions and sexual orientations.
Growing up there were four distinct moments where I remember race being an issue –
- Sneaking out to the living room after I was supposed to be sleeping, and catching a glimpse of the PBS show my dad was watching on the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. It was then, at a very young, elementary school age, that I watched the KKK burning homes and lynching men who looked like me. It was then that the nightmares of burning bricks being thrown in the window that graced the top of my bed began. I’m almost 29, and those nightmares still visit me to this day.
- The cul-de-sac that we lived in included a wide variety of families – several different races, some with one kid, another with five, an older couple, and a gay couple. Families moved in and out, and this one family who was more on what you would call the “redneck” style of life, lived there for awhile. They had two kids – a boy and a girl. The girl was as sweet as can be, but the son…well, he was clearly a product of his environment. He was nasty as hell, just like his sometimes present father. One day while we were all playing together, he grabbed a branch, hit me on my back and called me a N*****. Tears welled up from the sting, and I remember his sister yelling at him, but that sound grew more hollow as I ran toward my house. I didn’t fully understand what the word meant, but I knew it was bad. I know my mother talked to me about it, but she really didn’t need to. It was clear that I wasn’t accepted by him. However, I also knew that he was wrong. After all, my other white friends didn’t behave the way he did. This was simply an isolated event. I was happy when they moved.
- Around 4th and 5th grade, my hair and the way I spoke were constant topics of conversation. My mother relaxed my very thick and long hair when I was 6 because she couldn’t manage it along with her very thick hair. Being multi-ethnic, my hair grows quickly, is very strong and shiny when dried. The black girls would always ask me if I had weave, or tell me I was lucky to have that hair, or tell me that it had to be weave because there was no way it could be real. The white girls would also ask me if it was weave, want to touch it, but then would move on from it. The Hispanic girls never seemed to care. The black girls would often call me an “Oreo” because I “spoke too white” and didn’t understand the vernacular and terminologies that they used. I would explain that my family was from Jamaica and we spoke patois, which is the Jamaican dialect, and followed the grammatical and pronunciation rules of the British. Sometimes this would suffice. Other times it was the source of laughter.
- Checking the race box on forms at school was a discussion that I remember having with my mom very clearly. “You are not African American because your family is Jamaican and your not Black because you are made up of many different races. Out of many, one people. So if you want to check something, choose other and write Jamaican- American, West Indian or Multi-racial.” And that is what I did. How could I choose one race just because my skin was brown, when I was composed of so many other ethnicities? It didn’t seem like I was honoring my ancestors. The only time I checked something different was when my guidance counselor told me that if I wanted to be able to afford and get into college, then I needed to choose African American. Can’t say that it felt right.
In high school, yes there were conversations about race, but again, I could not fully resonate with what the black girls were sharing about discrimination. It wasn’t my story. I could empathize and hearing their pain and anger saddened me, absolutely, but I did not have the same perspective. As a Caribbean American, I certainly felt different from African Americans, but that didn’t stop me from having friends of all different races.
In college, I was invited to join race or culture oriented sororities and fraternities, but again, it didn’t feel comfortable for me. I wanted to be in diverse situations, because that is what I was used to.
One day, as I neared the end of my junior year, I was looking into internship opportunities and deciding on if I wanted to go to grad school. I worked in the Athletics Department, and was majoring in Sports and Fitness and specializing in Event Management. I sat down with my bosses to pick their brains about what my opportunities would look like…what my dreams should be. It was then the words that I didn’t fully understand until recently, were spoken to me.
I will preface this by saying that these two men truly cared about the students who worked for them, and their intentions were pure and goodhearted. They are really kind people, who I have no ill-feelings toward and simply wanted the best for me, which is probably why it took me so long to understand that what they were suggesting was out of a space of white privilege, and actually, quite hurtful.
“You should certainly pursue graduate school and seeking out a career in management in the athletics department of a university or professional team. Being a woman AND a minority will definitely open up opportunities for you! They need more women, especially minorities, to meet the quota, so it is unlikely that they will turn you away. You should use that to your advantage.”
It bothered me when they said it in the moment. Years later, I finally fully understand why.
You see, it opened my eyes to see that who I am as a person does not trump the color of the skin. My God-given abilities and talents that I worked hard to mold and sharpen, would not matter as much as the things that I had no control of. I am brown and I have breasts. This is what my life shall be determined by. That the so called “opportunities” that would be open to me would not because I deserved it, but it would be so that the powers that be could use the word “diverse” in their “feel good” verbiage and call it a day. A band aid to superficially cover a wound that needs debridement.
As I watch the America that I call home through the lens of my Jamaican upbringing, my heart is truly breaking as I see and experience the inequality and devaluation of life that exists in a post Martin Luther King, Jr. society. That women constantly live in fear because their voices and bodies don’t matter, especially those of color. That abuse and violence towards women is to be expected and accepted. That black men are being murdered and that the cycle of having to constantly prove themselves is so very, very real. That the pressure of having to prove who they are over and over, is crushing and can seem so unrealistic that they feel like what’s the point? Let me perpetuate the “stereotype” because, really, this is who they say I am, so this is how it must be. That when a justice system that is supposed to protect and rehabilitate to provide a safe and thriving community, fails over and over and over and over again, that there is nowhere to turn for help or direction. How exactly is this the land of the free?
I am married to a white man. He experienced his first taste of racism while we were dating and vacationed in Charleston, SC on a road trip. We got dirty looks, were ignored by staff, and snide remarks were made by both whites and blacks. He was in disbelief. Uncomfortable isn’t strong enough of a word. We cut our trip short, and left a day early.
On another occasion in a different city, we needed cash for a toll and we got off of an exit in an unfamiliar town and it was very rundown and very much a black part of town. We both felt it wasn’t a good idea for the two of us to into the store together, and that even though he didn’t want to feel okay with it, that I was the one who needed to go in. That was really one of the most uncomfortable moments I have experienced. Eyes watched as I walked back to our car. We sped away as fast as we could.
When I was pregnant and living outside of Richmond, VA, we were having dinner when I noticed two old ladies sitting across the aisle from one us, one of them glaring. She would look away when I caught her glance. She couldn’t see my husband until he got up to go to the bathroom. When he returned, she loudly “whispered” to her friend, “Can you believe the nerve of these two?! Out here in public like that together! Such a shame!” I stood up and rubbed my belly in the prideful and obnoxious of ways as I stared right back at her. When my husband stood up, I planted the most delicious of kisses on his lips and we walked out hand in hand.
Yet my heart was still hurt…because I was reminded that my little girl would now have to grow up in this world of nonacceptance, hatred, and discomfort, was really sinking in.
In fact, that was the topic of discussion for my husband and I for quite awhile. Where will we raise this beautiful bi-racial human being, so that she is in a place where she will be accepted and loved? Where will be diverse enough so that she will not feel different nor judged and have the same beautiful melting pot experience that we had?
How is this even a conversation?
WHY are these the conversations that we are having?!
This is a sad reality. This is certainly something that my husband has never had to think of. He’s entered into a whole new world. One that neither of us completely understand, but are sadly having to do a serious learning curve for.
Because having a daughter is scary enough.
She’s brilliant, gorgeous, and full of fire. She’s 2 and knows how to command a room and use her voice. But I know how quickly that light can be dimmed. As she gets older and realizes that because she has a vagina, it immediately disqualifies her from equality. That it opens her up to a world of scrutiny, abuse, violence, shame, and insecurity. That she will spend her life fighting to be heard and valued. That based on statistics, one day her and I will swap sexual abuse stories. That she will want to be something and be given the “Oh sweetheart, that’s not for you.”
Oh and that curly hair and beautiful brown skin just means that she’s going to have to constantly prove that she’s more than what her skin communicates.
To think that we may one day have a son…
Until recently, my mind hasn’t even been able to go there. That if we are blessed with a son, this burden of protecting and preparing him for this world that his dad won’t fully understand and that his mom can’t shield him from, is one that is so very heavy. To know that from the moment I push out that glorious miracle, that he will have to work much harder than his dad ever did to prove that he is a safe and upstanding individual to the society around him, is a laborious notion all in itself. That one day, he may find himself having to prove his value to a white man with a gun, and that the heart beating in his chest won’t have enough value to save him.
This reality of racism is so real to me in such a new way.
There is so much to learn in regards to being a parent of children of color in America, yet there is one principle that will remain the same for me – “Out of many, one people.” We all have value, yes. We are comprised of unique abilities and amazing origins. Without love and compassion, we will not beat hatred and we will not win the war on bigotry. Right now there are differences in treatment, and we must stand up and speak for those whose voices can not be heard, so that we can truly celebrate our beauty as humans.
To my children’s white friends and family, I ask you from the depths of my heart… for their lives, please help us fight the war. To check your hearts for the unintentional remnants of judgement or bias that may have seeped in. To simply recognize that the world you walk in is different and should be welcome to all. To make changes and use your voice to protect them in this society. To build them up and love them for who they are.
To my children’s black friends and family, I ask that you support them as they walk this road, and to meet the supportive members of the white community with grace and acceptance as they choose to walk alongside us in battle.
“Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned, everywhere is war.
And until there are no longer first-class and second-class citizens of any nation, until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes.
And until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race, there is war.
And until that day, the dream of lasting peace, world citizenship, rule of international morality, will remain but a fleeting illusion to be pursued, but never attained… now everywhere is war. – Haile Selassie
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Galatians 3: 28