Q & A: My Growing Up Years

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

So Steph has asked me to detail some of the painful experiences I had growing up as a minority. Kidding!

Seriously, though, she commented on my post about our bi-racial family and asked me a few questions. I told her via email that I consider myself an open book. I'd rather have someone ask me a question despite how it may "sound" because I believe dialogue is important.

Again, this is in no particular order. I'm going to go with the flow, whatever comes to mind.

I can definitely say I had a good childhood. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago. We were one of the first black families in our neighborhood. I don't remember any incidences of racism against our family but I was pretty young. Bad things didn't start happening to me until we moved to So Cal.

There were not many black families in our new city either (a nice part of Ventura County). I was usually the only black student in a class. Almost all the issues I've ever had were with boys. It was only name calling (I shouldn't say only, verbal abuse is still abuse) nothing physical: Chocolate Bar, Hershey and the ever present N word.

Most of the time I told my parents and they took care of it. My dad is in law enforcement (at time he was Secret Service) and a pretty big guy.

If I was having issues, I'd ask my dad if he could come get me from school. One time, I said I had a lot of homework and could he come with me to my locker because I needed all my books and they were too heavy for me to carry. I could tell he wasn't quite buying it since I'd never asked him to do this before but he played along.

Of course I had to walk him down the main hallway and of course I had to introduce him to several of the guys. I think Dad understood then but he didn't ask me to elaborate. This was junior high and I guess he knew I was wanting to start handling things my way.

Needless to say, his 6' 5" presence in the midst of all the pre-pubes really lent credence to "if you don't knock it off my dad will kick your ass."

There was one boy though who just wouldn't let up. I finally grabbed him by the wrist, bent it backwards and made him apologize. He eventually met Dad too and that was that.

My parents lived in St. Louis and moved to Illinois when I was a baby. For awhile I thought it was odd that my dad would move us so far from the city into a place that was so, well, white, given his feelings about white people.

Now, I feel I have to defend Dad a little here and say he's not a racist. He has a definite mistrust is the word I'll use, but it doesn't come out of nowhere. Given that my parents are in their mid 50's, the climate they were raised in is 180 degrees different than today. He's never said
anything hostile or derogatory about whites around me.

When my dad and uncles were little, "do not go across the train tracks after dark" was not an idle threat parents used to keep kids in line like the boogeyman. People were seriously hurt or lynched for being in the "wrong"neighborhood.

My dad played football and made all sorts of notoriety for the school. I think he was named all state champ or something, but when it came time to award scholarships, he didn't get one. My uncle told me the story. Dad was sure he was going to get a scholarship and coach called out all these names on the team. The last person awarded was the team kicker. He did go to college, to a HBU (historically black university) and even played arena football for The Chicago Fire until right before I was born.

My parents would not have been remiss in raising me to have the same anxieties, but they didn't. Instead, I had to give 110%, be better than everyone else and never give anyone a reason to deny me anything. People were not going to expect much from both a black and a woman so I had to prove everybody wrong. Which is why I'm such a type A control freak perfectionist.

Now that I'm a parent I can absolutely understand their decisions. And I respect the hell out of them for it.

It was hard to go back to St. Louis to visit. As a kid, I didn't know where the hostility the other black kids showed towards me came from. But I got a lot of, "she thinks she better than us," "she's not black enough" and "she thinks she's white." I always thought it was so stupid.

I couldn't understand why, just because we had the same skin color, I was all of a sudden supposed to start saying "ain't" and "aks" instead of ask. I was a straight A student and I was taught that "ain't" was not a word. Period. And I couldn't just flip a switch because I was around all black people and add it to my vocabulary.

Looking back though, I
was different, and different makes people uncomfortable. We'd come to visit every few years and I'd have my hair freshly done, new toys, a suitcase full of Esprit clothes (hey, it was the 80's!) and I lived in California (that alone was enough to make me stick out like a sore thumb).

I guess I can see me through their eyes. My not knowing how people outside of family were going to treat me made me, not really shy, more like cautious, and that could have been perceived as haughtiness.

I kept to a small circle of friends and tried not to let it bother me too much. My dad has a saying (one of many), "they may be your color, but that doesn't mean they're your people." I took it to heart and it helped me to not get my feelings hurt too often.

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  1. Was your family upset when you married your husband?

    Do white people who like Eminem piss you off or make you laugh?

  2. forgive, i thought you grew up in north san diego county. with me. ;)

    this was a great read. i love this style of writing... just thoughts, a stream of consciousness.
    anyhoo. onto the whole minority thing. wow. your parents did a bang-up job. kudos to them. seriously.

    my brother in law is black. he grew up in Long Beach, CA and then went to stanford. like you, he has been chastised by his relatives for acting "white." not something that i understand, never having been a minority myself. except for the whole woman thing.


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