Subtle Racism

Yes, it exists. It is uttered from the lips of every non-black that claims that they don’t see color. It is written in the contracts, applications, and forms we fill out that ask us to identify with labels of race. It is tasted in the bitter salty tears of a child that finally realizes life won’t be as easy for them as someone they had considered a friend just because her skin was darker. It is felt like a noose around the neck as you have to bite your tongue, get over it, and overcome.

Why?

I don’t have those kinds of answers. I only know what I know based on my own experiences. And don’t let me be misunderstood. Prejudice comes from both sides of the spectrum. I am not denying that people of color are just as prejudice, but I feel it is the self hatred instilled from the prejudice of others that makes them this way. I hope you all “get it” by the end of this.

Chemically, my skin contains elevated levels of melanin. (Chemistry is nothing but magic, so my melanin is magic… ya digg?) This causes my appearance to be darker than others. This is not labeling, this is science. The label comes when I have to identify as “Black, Non-Hispanic.” I was reared in Memphis, Tennessee, a city you would expect to be farther along in its progression of race related issues because of the dense population of other “Black, Non-Hispanics.

I went to a predominantly white day care for three years before I began Pre-K at a predominately white elementary school. I am sure my mother wanted “the best” for me, and I thank her for it but for different reasons.

I thank her because it instilled a thirst for knowledge in me; NOT because the education was whiter… I mean better.

I look back over my developmental years and realize I was brainwashed. When discussing my upbringing, I regularly told people that I didn’t realize that I was black until I got to the fourth grade after I transferred schools… but that’s not exactly true. I knew, physically that I looked different. But emotionally, over the course of the four years at Shady Grove I saw the attitudes of my teachers and fellow classmates change towards me.

At the time, I just didn’t understand why.

I remember leaving the lunchroom early one day and sneaking back into my kindergarten classroom with some little boy I had considered a friend. I liked the teacher, she was nice from what I can remember and it was her birthday. We were going to jump out and yell surprise and I thought it was a good idea because I had seen it work on the TV…

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It didn’t go over well. The teacher was furious. She gave us each an opportunity to explain ourselves.The boy lied and said it was my idea. I, innocent little Amber, had never told a lie before because my grandmother had me convinced I would go to hell if I did.

I was punished.

He was not.

He was white.

I was not. 

This was one of my first dealings with white privilege. It was my first time realizing that there was a difference in the value of my words based on the color of my skin. I lost touch with honesty & integrity because my words obviously didn’t matter whether they were truths or lies.

He laughed about it when I tried to talk it out with him later that day to understand what exactly had happened. He told me it wasn’t a big deal and I came to the conclusion that friends weren’t shit. Who needed friends if this was how they treated you? I had been punished because of his lie and he didn’t care.

Why was my skin tone considered dirty and worth less… worthless? Why did the physical dictate worth at all? Isn’t that what all that damn testing was for?

So I decided to fight fire with fire. I am competitive by nature and refused to lose to the color of my own skin. I studied hard and I became smart enough to challenge everyone in the classroom, including the teachers. I was unapologetic in my pursuit of academic acceptance. Fuck having friends. I would be respected because I would leave little choice to do otherwise. It was really me being a sulking brat, but I wanted to show them I didn’t need them. I wanted to prove that I could be better than them when it came to being white.

I guess that’s why the educators were so surprised when I took my IQ test and scored higher than a 150 in the second grade. Me, a little black girl with puffy ponytails adorned with barrettes, scoring genius level on a test that was never designed for people of color culturally to pass.

Proving my worth with academia… It worked. And backfired… simultaneously

Being the best built a complex of “I don’t need anyone” to succeed while all the while I was searching for validation from the same people I claimed to not need. I lost my identity. I lost my ability to interact with people and nature and spent most of my time in the company of authors with my nose buried in books.

I accumulated accolades and certificates and trophies all the while pretending I didn’t hear the whispered insults hurled at my still too young back. I smiled when I was congratulated with a backhanded compliment that usually ended with words that summed up to mean “…for a product of a single parent ethnic background growing up in a rough neighborhood” or “for a black girl”.

Like:

  • You’re so smart Amber…
  • You speak so well…
  • You are so artistic…
  • Your manners are impeccable…
  • You carry yourself well…
  • You sing beautifully…

I know someone will probably read this and say that I am overly sensitive, but the truth is in the condescending tone and the eyes that gaze upon you in disdain as the comments are delivered. These are insults disguised as good wishes so that they can go down a little easier, like a spoon full of sugar helping the medicine go down (a Mary Poppins reference).

As a child I had to understand the feeling of being hated for something I couldn’t control.

My fourth grade year, because of my family moving and the schools rezoning, I ended up leaving my “white school” in East Memphis Suburbia and going to a “black school” in Urban Mid-Town. It was an optional (advanced placement) school so my family didn’t mind so much in terms of my educational progression.

Within minutes of my first day starting, someone asked me why I “acted white”. I knew what it meant. Conformity had ostracized me from the people who looked like me. I only knew one way to cope, though, and that was to be better. So I learned how to be the “token black kid” mixing the cultures and becoming “different“.

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I was invited to parties, but from the whispers around me I couldn’t enjoy myself… so I stopped going. I was invited to seminars and camps, but the backhanded comments by the teaching staff left me feeling indignant… so I stopped participating. I tried to talk to my folks about it, but they just told me to ignore it and strive for excellence… so I stopped talking to them.

Ten years… ten years trapped smiling on the outside and dead on the inside. There was some type of impression that I was too “white” to fit in with the blacks and too “black” to fit in with the whites. And apparently, there was no gray area when it comes to skin tone.

I was alone, but I was on top academically.

This was just the beginning. By my middle school years shit started to change, especially with the way that I dealt with the obvious prejudice around me. I’ll write about that shit later, though. I understand why people say that racism isn’t something that occurs naturally in people, it is taught.

My own prejudice against others was taught. It developed with having to deal with other people’s prejudice against me. I went through phases of being ashamed for my blackness. I was trying to prove to white people that I wasn’t the average black person, that I could make something of myself… And I was trying to prove to black people that I wasn’t stuck up and you could be smart and cool.

I look back now and realize that a child doesn’t deserve to have to think about overcoming something she cannot change.

I’m still learning to deal with it… But now I am unapologetically proud of my melanin.

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I am taking back everything that was stolen from me during my developmental years.

Even though every day, multiple times a day, I am reminded of the unfairness of it all; I refuse to remain stagnant. With the chaos of the current world, there are those that are blatantly open about their racism and others who seem oblivious that it even exists. The denial of white people that white privilege even exists is one of the primary tools of subtle racism, especially when they have a nonchalant stance on how fucked up this world is. The self righteousness of my own people and their quick, selfish judgment of each other has only perpetuated this system of oppression.

And I’m not bashing all people. If you aren’t a perpetrator let these words roll off your back like water on a ducks feathers. Don’t waste your time trying to defend a group of people who wouldn’t give a damn about defending me.

I’m working on my energy. I have found some wonderful like minded people while finding myself and I don’t feel so lonely anymore. I am realizing that there is a difference between being alone and being lonely, and when you are in tune with the earth you are never lonely.

I am also realizing that the problem with racism isn’t me and it isn’t my fault. I can separate myself from that negativity. I can move on.

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