I was 15 when I started to suspect I might be black. I’d left my home in Belize after spending all of my childhood in seclusion. For 14 years the only people I knew were my immediate family. I was home schooled in the rainforest. All the stories and books I’d read, like Cinderella, Treasure Island, and Lord of the Rings. I didn’t realize that I was any different.
When I decided to leave my family and go to school in the USA, my mom’s best friend Cathy took me in. She was a warm, generous woman, and, like my mom, was white. She lived in a predominantly white suburb of Detroit. Back home in the jungle, we never talked about race in a meaningful way. I didn’t talk much about race with Cathy, either. She’d always would say, “everyone is created equal” and left it at that.
With so many other societal rules to learn, race was lost in the mix at first. I was exhausted just trying to learn vital social cues like small talk.
If someone said, “Your binder stickers are cool”, I’d say, “I know”. Let’s just say I wasn’t a social butterfly.
But little clues began to appear the more I settled in. Dots started becoming patterns and I started drawing the connecting lines. Kids would say things like, “ You’re black, but you’re classy”.
They were meant as compliments, and at the time I was eager to hear a kind word, but I couldn’t shake this feeling that whatever it meant to be “black” wasn’t good.
One day, my social studies teacher gave each of us a blank piece of paper and a box of crayons. His only instruction was to draw a human, no one specific.
Everyone instinctively used the “peach” crayon when it was time to color the skin.
I, too, automatically reached for the peach crayon, but something stopped me. It didn’t match my skin. Then again, if used the brown crayon, it would be admitting that I was different, which no one else, including myself, seemed willing to do. I took a green crayon and drew a stick figure to avoid the issue altogether.
The teacher looked at everyone’s drawing. Then he took my drawing, held it up and said, “Everyone in here drew a white human except Minni. Can you see how our race shapes our viewpoint?
My stomach lurched and my mouth got dry. I felt naked in front of the class.
The class erupted in protest to the teacher’s words. “We just drew a human, you didn’t tell us to draw a black human,” one student said.
“In 1961 that same “peach” crayon you used was called “flesh. They changed it.” The Teacher said. “Do you know why?” The teacher was a white man in his 30s. Before him, not one in my life had addressed race so directly in that way. Or maybe they did and I wasn’t exposed enough to recognize it.
But in that moment I felt so uncomfortable that I felt an uncontrollable urge to hide. I didn’t want to hear the answer.
I dashed to grab the bathroom pass, and without asking permission, took refuge in a bathroom stall until the bell rang for lunch. On my way out of the bathroom, I looked in the mirror and was sickened to see that I was, in fact, not white.
I wasn’t aware then, but all my life I’d been socialized to see humans as white by default. Even as a young child secluded in the jungle, I was reading about Goldie Locks and Treasure Island and the Jungle Book. There were people, and then there were other kinds of people. I’d always thought of myself as the default “people” category until that day.
After realizing I was black, I did everything I could to disassociate myself from blackness. I was quick to tell people that my mom was white, that I liked folk music, that I wasn’t, technically, actually, black. TV, magazines, advertisements all propelled this self-hatred. I grew quiet, passive and depressed. I spent the next ten years lost in the dangerous woods of self-hatred.
Even the best people all over the globe, including myself, are socialized to have implicit race bias slanted against people of color. Not talking about race doesn’t make global, institutional racism magically disappear. It’s there, bubbling under the surface, choosing its victims.