I can remember that growing up, I was usually the only black kid in my circle of friends. I’ve always had mostly white friends. Even to this day, going on 29 years old, I’ve only had one “best” friend who is black. I don’t really know why this is, but I have often found it difficult to relate to women of my own race. That’s not to say that I don’t, but more often than not, I find myself having more in common with white women.
There are a lot of things I could attribute this to . Growing up on Staten Island (one of the 5 boroughs of New York City), I wasn’t always around other black kids. Until I started school at the age of 4, all of my socializing was done at my dancing school where everyone but a small handful of girls (and none my age) were black. I was the only black girl and the tallest, so I stick out in every class picture and dance recital video — the one right in the middle.
I met two of my best friends during this time in my life, and I am happy to say that we’re all still friends to this day. I don’t really remember ever noticing a difference between us, but I think I recall my mom mentioning that I brought it up around the age of 4 or so; I asked why my best friend Amanda didn’t look like me. My mom doesn’t really remember her answer, but it was never made a big deal. I guess I just accepted it at face value. My friends looked like my dolls, light skin, different colored eyes and hair. I didn’t have any real black friends until I started school.
During elementary school, I would, of course, become friends with just about all the girls in my class for various reasons. We’d have play dates where everyone would come over to my house to play with Barbies or dress up in my old dance costumes and put on shows for my mom. This happened to involve mostly my black friends, oddly enough.
As I moved on to intermediate school, a big thing changed. I was a smart kid in a special program at school. My intermediate school was big; it boasted over 400 students and a special magnet program where children could go into “majors” in the arts. I was a drama major and a good student, and both were isolating. While my elementary school was very well integrated (white kids were actually a minority), my intermediate school was weirdly mixed. Three local elementary schools fed into it in addition to the kids from all over the island who came specifically for the arts programs. As far as I can remember, there was only one other black kid in my homeroom. We were friendly, but I never had her over for a sleepover or anything.
It was during these years that my race became isolating. There were plenty of other black girls in my school, but they wanted nothing to do with me. In fact, they were my biggest tormentors, calling me an “Oreo” at every turn. For those of you who may not understand the analogy, think of an Oreo cookie. Back in the ’90s, there was only one kind: chocolate cookie with a vanilla cream. Black on the outside, white on the inside.
Being called an Oreo was what made me realize that maybe I was different than my peers. I had never seen myself as different. I thought I had average hobbies: I liked to read copious amounts of books, play with dolls, listen to music, and talk on the phone for hours — usual tween stuff. My musical taste was incredibly varied due to my family. I loved everything from Motown and classic soul to country to contemporary top 40. I came of age during the ’90s Renaissance, so my walls were plastered with the faces of the Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, and Britney Spears. I still love Justin Timberlake to this day. I didn’t realize that those interests separated me. I’ll admit that those were hard times. I tried to tell myself that I was a bigger person than my tormentors and that I could rise above it, but every whispered word left a scar in my heart.
It wasn’t until I got to high school that I truly found black kids who were like me. Whether it be that we had the same interests, passions, or goals, it was refreshing and incredibly important to know that I wasn’t alone and that I wasn’t a “traitor” to my race. To this day, those girls still hold special places in my heart, and one of them is still my “best” friend. She’s the one I mentioned at the beginning. Once I discovered that I wasn’t alone, it was so much easier for me to feel comfortable in my own skin. I could once again transcend my race as my biggest identifier. That’s why I didn’t feel weird about being one of the few black kids in my college and actually thought it was cool that I got a scholarship for being black.
Nowadays I feel like my race has yet again come to the forefront of my consciousness. Given everything that has happened in the country over the past few months, race relations are pretty tense. I have never been more aware of my black-ness, even though I don’t like to use it as an excuse or a crutch. I try to use my race as a way to open up a conversation. As all of these things have happened, I have tried to gently remind my white friends of the fact that I am black and that, even though they may not view me in the same way they view other members of my race, that’s still who I am. It is daunting to read some of the comments they have made, but I have to hold my head high and point out the shortsightedness of their responses.
I don’t know if it works, but at least I can say that I’ve tried. I have more reasons than ever to embrace my race. In September 2013, I gave birth to a son. My son Jackson is my greatest accomplishment. He will also be my greatest student. He is half black and half white, though his looks favor his white dad. People often think I’m his nanny, which is something I’ve just come to embrace.
It will be my responsibility to teach this little person about his heritage and those who came before him, and the only way I can do that is to do the same.