Sixth grade…that’s when I first discovered race….
Race wasn’t a major factor until then….it wasn’t a part of my life, it was just there but then it was in the forefront.
But why then?
I was born on the west coast in Los Angeles, California and a few months later, I moved to Sacramento for three years. Of course, I don’t remember much of Cali other than a few fuzzy memories of an old house. Then I moved to Texas where even though I was one of three maybe four African American students in my classes, I still didn’t think about or focus on race.
Was it the fact that I was in private school? Did it matter that the private school was a religious one? Or that my best friend at the time was white? I lived in Dallas, Texas until I was 10 1/2 and not one moment did I think about race…not fully…I knew I was black. I knew that my hair was different from Jennifer’s and that my skin was darker than Erin’s but I didn’t focus on it.
It wasn’t until I started the sixth grade in North Carolina that I realized that race existed. It was the first time, I ever went to public school and it was culture shock. Me, the girl who was used to being the one of only a few black students in the class, became one of hundreds of black students at Ligon Middle School. It was then that I learned (and soon realized) that I was BLACK. It was a new concept to me because it had never really crossed my mind and it was never a major deal.
I didn’t have a full understanding of the differences between races until the issue was thrown in my face and forced itself it my life. I was 12 and had no idea it was going to hit me head on.
Throughout middle school, people would ask me “why are you acting white?” when I would talk the way I did or strive to get good grades in class. It was a foreign concept for some of my peers to grasp but for me that’s what was expected of me by my parents. It still amazes me that at a middle school that was predominately black, the majority of the students at the Honor Roll ceremonies were white…except of me and few other black students.
And as the years went on, I met with race more and more. Race made its second major introduction into my life on my first day of ninth grade when I learned there was a battle between light skin and dark skin. Before than, I knew that my people came in all colors, beautiful colors but I didn’t know there were color lines. I remember the conversation to this day. There were no harsh words exchanged or raised voices displayed, just a statement.
She said I had to be mixed. Mixed with what I wondered? Well, black and white, she said because there’s no way you can have light skin and good hair without being mixed. Now at this point I was still confused because one, I knew that my family was African American – my parents, my grandparents, my great grandparents, everyone in my family looked different and we all varied in shades from the darkest dark to the lightest light but we were still black… at least that’s what I thought. And good hair? I didn’t know there was such a thing, I just knew that we all had hair and it was all different.
Needless to say, I learned more about race in middle and high school than I ever would have thought. But what I learned helped me prepare for college – my biggest challenge with race. But the difference between my first and second encounters with race and this third one in college was the fact that I knew what race meant to me and where I stood on the issue.
I knew that people would assume that I was mixed but I would simply smile and say I am proud of my black parents and the afros that we all have. I knew what it meant when someone said “good hair vs bad hair” but Chris Rock’s movie Good Hair did help with my understanding of the creamy crack and weaves. And I knew that even though race was there, it was present…it wasn’t going to be my focus.
I was reminded of my first meeting with race this past weekend when I visited the Museum of Natural History. All I wanted to see was the Hope Diamond but while I was there, I stumbled upon an exhibit called “RACE” and it made me think of the anecdote I just shared with you.
As I walked around the exhibit, the memories of what I had heard from others and my own experiences hit me like brick wall and I was moved to share my experience. I think it’s interesting that we all know that race exists and we talk about it in the present but we never really talk about how we first discovered race or how race discovered us? It’s a conversation I’ve never had or thought to have until after visiting this exhibit which forced me to remember the sixth grade. Who would have thought that at age 12 we would be faced with a fight that humans have been battling for centuries. As a 22-year-old college graduate, I appreciate what I’ve learned from my own personal experiences and the stories of others and even though all of them may vary, there’s still one similar conclusion…we accept that race is here and that we would want it gone, but we wonder could we ever live in a world where race did not exist.
Ponder it. Because I have. And I’m still wondering.
Until next time,