*An essay every Friday in 2016*
I’ve been working with high school students for over a decade now. I’ve taught them writing across the genres—Fiction, Poetry, CNF, writing as social action; how to write the college application essay; college prep and life skills classes from time management to how to write a resume. Countless of them have come running to me with their college acceptance letters. We jump for joy and tear up. Many come to visit me during their college years and after. They return from the universities around the country, upstate, in middle America and on the west coast, with similar stories of how different the world is outside of New York. Stories of blatant racism and microagressions that never fail to make me cringe and curse and want to hold them. This week, a young black man (we’ll call him Jay), recently 19, came for a visit while on break from his upstate university. He’s in his freshman year and already switched majors from business to media studies, and is now very interested in creative writing. This from a kid who said he hated writing just a year ago. (*brushes shoulder off*) Then the conversation darkened. Jay began sharing a litany of racial assaults:
He got into a cab to get back to campus only to be told by the driver that he wasn’t going anywhere. “I don’t serve your kind,” the driver said and pointed to his skin.
Dressed in slacks for a presentation in a business class, a woman at Starbucks said, “You own slacks? I thought all black boys only wear Jordans.”
When a white girl in his creative writing class saw that he’d received an A+ on an assignment, she said to her friend, “I didn’t know black people got good grades.” Jay turned around, holding the paper for her to see. “Apparently we do.”
On a walk back to campus, Jay and a friend were throwing a football back and forth. He missed a catch and the ball went hurtling onto a lawn. When he went to retrieve it, a tall white man came out of the house and said, “Get the fuck off my lawn.” When Jay tried to explain, he was met with the barrel of a shotgun. He backed away slowly. Only then did he notice the Confederate flags on every lawn on the block.
“I know it’s ignorance,” he said. Jay is a young black man from East Harlem whose parents tried to give him the best, spending money to send him to summer programs and basketball camps at universities in the tristate area. He’d never encountered this kind of hostile racism in his life. “They’ve never been exposed to black people,” he said shaking his head and shrugging. I wanted to lean in and hug him. I imagined how this would shape him as a black man. How he would learn to navigate these white spaces.
I thought about my own experience as a woman of color when I left NY at the height of the crack epidemic in 1989 to attend a boarding program in very white, wealthy Wellesley, Massachusetts. I thought about how the experience there and at Columbia University still walks with me. How at the age of 40, all these years later, I still get nervous in all white spaces.
I’m thinking of last June. I had been reading a lot about race and class and how the two intersect. That April I’d had an awful experience at AWP where I saw a slew of white men step over a black body on the floor outside the bathroom on the main floor of the convention center in Minneapolis. Two days later, at the VONA reading, David Mura said it’s at AWP that he is reminded of how segregated the US still is. (You can read the essay Color in AW(hite)Place here on Side B Magazine.)
I was still raw from the experience and all the reading and writing I’d been doing around these issues. One day, I had to go to the Apple store to get my daughter’s iPhone serviced. I was going away to VONA that week and, of course, baby girl messed up her phone right when I needed her to have it most. The screen had been cracked for a while but the previous week, on a Circle Line trip with her fifth grade class, she said it stopped working. “I didn’t do anything to it,” she claimed. I reset it. Let the battery die and recharged it. Nothing worked. Her screen wasn’t operational. I could see when calls and texts and Instagram notifications came in, but I couldn’t access them. And, of course, the only Apple store with an available appointment that day was the one on the Upper East Side.
I should say that I don’t like the Upper East Side. It’s rich, largely blue blood, old money, and it’s really, really white. It reminds me of what I don’t have and of those times in boarding school when I was reminded that I was (still am) one of the have nots. You can sit there and judge me. Tell me to get over it. To appreciate what I have and blah, blah, blah. See, this isn’t about that. I do appreciate what I have. I’m grateful for a roof over my head. I’m grateful that I can get my daughter a fuckin phone so we can stay in contact while I’m away at a writing workshop for almost three weeks. I’m grateful for all of that, but that metallic feeling of being less than has never left me.
Her name was Amy (that really wasn’t her name but…) and she was a girl in my grade who lived in the town of Wellesley where I went to boarding school. She had money. Or, better said, her family had money. Lots of it. She got a Jeep Wrangler when she got her license at 16. She lived in a gorgeous two story house on Cliff Road, the richer part of a rich town. (Yes, that exists.) She had a new pair of kicks every week. Seriously, EVERY FUCKING WEEK the girl had a new pair of sneakers. And not some cheap, Converse sneakers, but some expensive, Nike, Reebok, $100+ per pair kind. Always a new pair of jeans and shirts and this and that…and she made it a point to remind me of that.
I thought of her during that NAACP “I’m a black woman trapped in a white body” Rachel Dolezal scandal. This girl didn’t try to pass as black, that much I’ll give her. She couldn’t. She was very white. But she wanted to be black. She went into Boston every weekend. Roxbury and Mattapan and Dorchester. She dated only black boys. And she reminded me of what I wasn’t all the time. That I wasn’t rich. And that I wasn’t black (although I am Afro-Indígena, but that’s an entirely different conversation).
I don’t know why I wanted her to like me but I did. I say that with some shame now. No, with lots of shame. Maybe it’s because I was just trying to fit in and as a Latina (Boricua-Hondureña) in a world where race was split into black and white, I didn’t really fit in anywhere, but I sure did try.
I remember one time, the one that stings the most of all the times, that she offered me and my friend K, an African American scholarship kid like me, a ride back to our dorm on the top of the hill. The house was almost two miles away, 1.99, if I recall correctly, and we had to hike those 1.99 miles no matter what the weather. That day I was tired and annoyed and I didn’t want to walk, so when Amy drove by and offered us a ride, I was relieved. She told K, a sophomore (I was then a junior), to jump in the front. I thought nothing of it. Then she demanded, that if I wanted the ride, I had to say something. I won’t pretend to remember what that was. I’ve mercifully forgot what the exact words were, but I know it was some real demeaning shit. As I type, I hear the words, “I ain’t shit” and “You’re superior, Amy,” but I can’t say that’s what she demanded I say. I do know that that was essentially it. It was embarrassing and shaming. At first I laughed it off and tried to climb in, thinking she must be joking. She jerked the car so I almost fell backward. “Say it!” she demanded and grilled me. She smiled at K and back at me. I knew she had me. If I didn’t say it, I’d have to walk and she’d win because I would have to walk those two fuckin’ miles moping and sad. If I said it, I got the ride, but I still lost because I let her play me.
I said it. I said those fuckin’ words (whatever they were, they were bad enough that my mind instructed itself to forget) and I got in the car. I was quiet for the entire ride while she and K chatted. I seethed in the back, staring out the window. I could feel her stare at me in the rear view. When she pulled up to the house, I climbed out without another word or look back. She mocked me, laughing and teasing. I just walked up the stairs and into the house. K never mentioned it. I think she was just as ashamed as I was.
I thought about that as I sat in that Apple store waiting for someone to help me. I thought about it as I looked over at the older white woman sitting next to me. She had big rings on her fingers with all sorts of big expensive rocks, and her sunglasses easily cost more than half of my rent. I squirmed uncomfortably and looked away. I was happy to get out of there quickly.
I feel like that every time I have to walk on Madison Ave or Fifth Ave and even on certain blocks in SoHo and the new Brooklyn. I felt it back when I had to take my students to the annual Antique Show at the armory on Madison Avenue. I felt it when my student pointed at an antique painting that was priced at several hundred thousand dollars. “You know what I could do with that kinda money, Ms?” he said. I nodded. “For real, right?” We were both wondering: What the fuck are we doing here?
I don’t feel that as much these days, but there are days like that day last June at the Apple store on the Upper Eastside and at AWP last April, where I feel myself squirm. I don’t want to feel inferior. I know in my mind that neither money nor skin color does not make them or me better or worse. I know that in my mind…but my heart takes me back to the back of that Jeep Wrangler where I feel the smallest I’ve ever felt and I knew that I’d lost, that I would lose, again and again and again.
I’ve been thinking a lot about race lately. I wrote an essay a while back called “Stop Denying Me My Blackness” where I talked about just that—race as a Latina who looks more like the Mayan side of her blood though the reality is that I am one of three light-skinned people in my family. I wrote about the problems I’ve encountered with people denying me my blackness because of the way I present and my visceral reaction to that. I’ve had varying responses to the essay. Some have written in solidarity. Others have responded harshly, once again denying me my blackness, as if blackness is theirs to assign. One person told me I needed to check my privilege.
I still don’t understand why my claiming my blackness is an assault to anyone. I understand I have privilege because of my lighter skin. Shadism is real. I get that. I confess, however, that there are times that I cringe at the word “privileged” when it’s hurled at me like an accusation, like I have any control over my genes. This happened to me recently and my response was swift and biting. Why? Because I too have been a victim of racism, and privilege didn’t protect me from that. I’m not comparing oppressions. I’m real tired of the oppression Olympics nonsense I’ve witnessed online and elsewhere. Tell me what the fuck is the use in that? Oppression has so many faces and levels, and the truth is that if you’re a person of color (and even if you’re not) we’re all carrying some sort of generational trauma. Mine just looks different from yours…
I’m remembering that face of that man, red and bloated and full of hate, in that passing truck who threw a lit cigarette at me and a St. Lucian friend as we were walking back to our dorm my freshman year. “Go home, niggers,” he yelled. He didn’t point at me and say “Not you, spic.” I was thirteen years old and had been in Wellesley for all of a few weeks.
I can’t forget the times that I was confused for a custodian at Columbia University or that time during my work study job when a white girl was shocked that I could speak English so well. “Wow, where did you learn to speak English like that?” she asked. I glared at her. “The same place you did. I’m a student here, just like you.” She didn’t know where to put her face. She pushed $5 into my hand to pay for her blueberry muffin and scurried off. She didn’t wait for the change.
Still, I haven’t had a shotgun pointed at me the way my student did. I’m not seen as dangerous the way he is. I know this. These issues of race and privilege are difficult and layered. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I’m just trying to make sense of my life and my place in this world, and I’m trying to be a part of positive change. The thing is that I’m vocal about it and I write about it because that’s how I process and how I take back my power, and that often leaves me open to judgment and ridicule. Es con hablar que nos entendemos, my mother used to say. So instead of wagging a finger at me, let’s talk and try to understand one another. I’m willing to listen.