Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Remember Whensday: Remember When I Thought I was Black? (Not at all like Rachel Dolezal)

I actually never thought I was black. And I definitely never pulled a Rachel Dolezal. I'm fairly certain my paleness was obvious from birth. But lately I can't help but think about race.

I was born in a small town in Southern Indiana where we had one black family in my elementary school. The daughter of the family was in my grade. The son in my brother's. We weren't in the same class which pretty much dictates the sphere of friendship you have in elementary school, so I never met them.

Then I moved. Evansville was more diverse. Or at least slightly more diverse. My best friend in my neighborhood, which was the slightly older kids' sphere of friendship, was black. (She's actually still black, but she's no longer in my neighborhood. Hence the "was.") To say I didn't notice we were different wouldn't be 100 percent accurate, but to say that it was all that noticed wouldn't be accurate either.

I was just fairly oblivious.

I think oblivion is not a bad place to live in as a kid, at least for as long as you can. But there comes a day in every person's life, no matter what their race, when they suddenly become aware of race in a very real way. Mine was in sixth grade.

Still living in an age of ignorance, my friend asked me if I wanted to join her in being a part of the Academic Olympics she was doing. DID I?? Uh, yes. I am nerd. Always have been. Always will be. The chance to learn the answer to various trivia questions, be a part of a team and spend a Saturday at a commuter college testing my knowledge versus other teams sounded like a dream weekend for me. (Less so for my parents who had to tote my ass around, but that was none of my concern because that's what they were there for, right?)

I went to the meeting and there were so many kids that wanted to do this that they split us into two teams (to be fair, there were about a dozen kids up for this). I was assigned to the team that didn't include the friends who had invited me, but it was cool. I liked meeting new people. I went to the practices, studied my area of expertise (science and history--full on nerd-dom) and had my dad quiz me in the car on the way to the morning meet.

Dad cheered me on and when we advanced, he watched us all the way through the finals. We got second place. He was proud. Even more proud than I really expected him to be, but I basked in the glory. My friends' team didn't place and I got a medal. They were jealous. Here was my team:

A few years later I was going through the pictures and realized something. . . I was the only white person at this event. I asked my dad about it. The conversation went something like this:

Me: I found this picture of my old Academic Olympic team. I don't remember being the only white person there.

Dad: Yeah, it took me a while to realize that you were competing in the African-American Academic Olympics.

Me: There was a separate Academic Olympics? That seems very wrong to me.

Dad: It was in February. For Black History Month. And you were oblivious. I didn't know whether to be proud that you'd won or proud that you didn't seem to notice anything different.

And I didn't. I didn't notice it at all. I didn't notice my team mate's "Black by Popular Demand" t-shirt or notice the ribbing I got from them because "all your answers are George Washington Carver." (Which was not the truth, btw).

Clearly this wasn't the moment that made me come face to face with race.

It was a few months after this picture. I was in Mrs. Woodruff's homeroom in seventh grade. We were placed into homeroom by the very scientific selection of alphabetical order. Luckily my neighborhood friend, Tiffany, was in there with me. I was describing a cute boy I had seen at the Dairy Queen the night before (because it was seventh grade and it was homeroom. Aside from finishing up leftover homework, there was nothing else to do.)  I described the boy as black and the conversation (as I remember it) went as follows:

Her: What did you say?

Me: I said he was black.

Her: What color is my skin?

Me (nervous and feeling like this is a trick question): Brown?

Her: It's African-American. And don't you forget it.

That was the moment when our friendship changed. I don't think I'm unique in this. I can assume, especially in Indiana when you're around a bunch of white people all the time, that finding other people that can relate is comforting in a way that other friendships aren't. I still very much remember that exchange (from memory and journal). I remember it being the first time that I was made very aware that I was different. Which was pretty lucky because I'm sure kids of another race in Evansville or anywhere else like it felt different a long time before seventh grade. That's because I was like most other people where I was from, I wouldn't be made to feel different all that often. But other people that I cared about would.

I could no longer be oblivious to race. And that was both enlightening and sad in ways my seventh grade mind couldn't handle. My adult mind still has a hard time wrapping around it.

When was the first time you were made aware of your race?


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