When I was 8 years old our family packed up and moved from our black neighborhood where I was part of the majority and moved to a white neighborhood where I was now for the first time since I could remember a minority. I was the first child of color on our block and right away I felt differently. The boys that I played with were not sure how to treat me because most had never played with a black person before on a regular basis.
I was also the only adopted one on the block, so I was a double minority and that translated into me being THE DIFFERENT ONE. For the first several months I really struggled with that title.
I enjoyed being the different one. I enjoyed being the unique one. My life-story was unusual; out of the ordinary; interesting, and I liked that a lot. I liked being the only adopted one and I liked being the only child of color in our family. It made me special and I felt special. I liked the extra attention and up until this point the attention that got sifted down to me was only positive.
At this point in my life, I was held captive by what I thought made me so unique. I wanted to be seen and acknowledge as different but I didn’t want to be treated as different.
Unfortunately, adolescent boys don’t come with filters. Immediately, I was seen as different and treated as different by the kids that I played with on our new block. The boys I played with were used to describing black people as “colored.” Almost daily that term was used and then everyone would look at me and to see how I responded to the use of the term. All eyes would gravitate to me and in this small gesture I was told I was not part of the group. I hated that feeling more than I hated the use of the word “colored.”
I quickly learned who of the children was safe to be around and who was liable to point out my difference causing all eyes to turn to me. Those that were suspect made me uneasy. I knew somehow they would find a way to weave in to their conversation something about a “colored guy” and the comfort of just fitting in would be ruined for that day.
We all awkwardly pushed through those initial months. The more sensitive in the group would steer away from any color references. They would change their everyday speech for my benefit and often stop mid sentence with something like, “yeah and then that colored…I mean that guy said….” Unfortunately changing how they were around me still made me feel uncomfortable and again the feeling of being the different one still descended up me. But we moved forward, we persevered, committed to finding a way to co-exist. We continued childhood life, playing baseball and basketball and football and still lived as kids hoping the bond of childhood would soon eclipse our racial differences.
Often as we played, I would look up and see the reflection of my Mom’s glasses in our front dinning room window. I now realize she was watching to see how I was getting along. Her protective Mom’s heart was worried about me and my new environment. She was checking to see if I was fitting in, if I was becoming part of the group or if I was the one on the outside looking in.
As a parent, isn’t that what we all want? We just want our children to be accepted; to be one of the group, well liked, safe and comfortable.
I do that with my children today. I often watch or listen to see how they fit in to the group dynamics. Do they negotiate those childhood relationships with ease or are they the one on the outside trying to beat down the door to get in?
I am sure that is what my Mom was doing. She was just seeing if the children were opening a door for me or closing it in my face. So when I looked up I know now that’s what Mom was doing. She was silently watching, concerned about her slightly darker child and wondering how I was negotiating life in this new environment.
If I could, I would love to go back to that time and as Mom was watching me hit that ball or catch that pass, I would love to whisper in her ear, “I’m Okay Mom. I am figuring this out and I am gonna be ok.”
More importantly, I would love to pass on some advice to her that would help us both figure out how to paddle through these unfamiliar waters. Today this is the advice I would pass along.
1) It is ok to acknowledge I am different. I know you think that if you acknowledge that I am different it will only solidify that I am different. Honestly, I feel different whether you acknowledge it or not. To ignore that I am different only makes me feel like I am crazy for thinking it or worse yet, that my race doesn’t matter. Can you imagine if your family refused to acknowledge that you were a girl, wouldn’t that have been tragic to ignore such a big part of who you were and who you were going to be? Please don’t ignore such a large part of me or you send a message that this part of me is not important and has no value.
2) Prepare me for the probable while praying for the possible. The validation that you understand there may be incidents in my life where I am treated differently solely because I am black would be huge for me. To acknowledge that this is very probable and to explain that would have make life much easier . By ignoring this probability only sets me for a potential rude awakening. I would prefer if you would prepare me for the probable while praying for the possible. It is possible that I might not be affected by racism and I would ask that you pray for that possibility while preparing me for the probable.
3) Blood isn’t always thicker than bias. Realize that the make up of our family will not only affect the immediate family but also the extended family and the extended family may not all be comfortable with the choices you made. There may be extended family members you have to contain because this insensitivity threatens our family’s well being.
4) Sometimes I wonder about my biological/first mother and father. Do you think we could talk about them sometime? I have so many questions but I don’t want to hurt you or upset by asking them. Again what’s ignored gets translated in to unimportant
5) What I ignore shouldn’t be translated in to unimportant. If I don’t ever bring up #1-4 doesn’t mean I don’t want to talk about them or that they don’t affect me. I am unsure how to bring them up or if you will be comfortable talking about them. Since you are the adult you set the comfort level.
6) I did it. I need to advise you that I was the one who carved all four kids’ names in the kitchen table. My older brother had nothing to do with that and his spanking should have been mine. Also there is no such thing as retroactive spankings. What’s done is done and should be left alone.
This conversation that I wish I would have had with my mother would have let her know I was Ok and just being able to talk about all this would have let me know I would be better than Ok.