I remember, when I first stepped into my fourth grade classroom, my mouth dropped to the floor. It was the middle of the summer and we had just moved to the suburbs. Unfortunately for me, they were on cycle scheduling and so my summer time and childhood of fun had ended abruptly. I found myself looking around and wondering what world was I just released into.
Here I was, 9 years old, with my innocence or perhaps some may say ignorance stripped away from me. My innocence and/or ignorance depending upon your view, was towards race. With the exception of a teacher or two, everyone who I had ever known looked like me. I grew up amongst a very homogenous group of people, however on that day, I learned who I was and who I was wasn’t. I was a black girl, and I did not belong to the social strata in which I would live in for the rest of my life.
I was tainted, scarred, ugly and brown. But I was smart. I tested out of the normal reading class and was above average in most subjects and as such I was accepted as an intellectual peer. But I was different still. And at such a young age, I understood why but I never understood why. I knew that it was because I was black, but I didn’t understand why me being black conflicted with the world. I was an outsider amongst my white peers, and because I lived so far from any black neighborhood, I was an outsider amongst them as well. For years, I struggled trying to find a place or a space that I could call home. I made friends with every black and hip white person that I could find. And I often wondered if our relationships would stay the same had our landscape changed. I was hypersensitive to issues dealing with race, because I knew that so much of who I was and who I wasn’t had to do with my race. I was the radical one, who did not let any injustices go unheard.
In high school, I use to organize days where all of the black kids would wear a particular color. The administrators and other students in the school had no idea what was going on. I think it was my way of saying that we are here and we exist. Other times, we were only seen because we were the “minority” race, and we needed a close eye kept on us at all times to be sure that we did not cause trouble. All because of our race! But what was race? I was just a person, like anyone else. I laughed, I cried, I felt, I ate, I slept, I bled just like every other human being. But my race, this one simple concept that was socially constructed to justify oppression, and systems of hierarchy based upon the amount of melanin ones skin made, defined the world for me. It also outlined who I was to the world as well.
At such a young age, my first encounter with race was traumatic. I could only imagine what the Little Rock Nine and others went through. And although we have come a long way, integration even in this day is anything but kind. We do not live in a post-racial society and the conversation about race, is one that must be had with our children before the world teaches them about it. So what was your first encounter?