I am 4 and sitting atop my father's shoulders. I tell this story all the time. If you know me at all then I have probably told you this story. If I haven't told you this story and ended it with tears in my eyes then I haven't properly told the story. Sometimes I am guilty of that. He is taking me for ice cream and I have begged to be picked up and get a ride. He does so and I ride all the way into the shop, ducking even when we get to the door. My father is tall, well over 6 feet and even as a young girl I was "tall for my age". Later, people will comment on my height and tell me to play basketball and I will not want to play basketball. I will love volleyball. But, at 4, I know nothing of sports. I know of making friends at the park and holding hands with other little boys and girls. I know of playing and swinging and teeter-tottering on the equipment at the playground across from where we get ice cream.
I am 4 and he is my father and I am his daughter. I am used to the stares at 4. I think that's the way everyone is and I learn to stare at other people until one day a girl slaps me at school because of it. Sometimes, I imagine that we're famous and that's why they stare. The hard looks and angry eyes come because they are jealous of my mother who is a film actress and also an opera singer and maybe a magician, too. We hold fancy parties on the weekend with champagne flutes and tiny food on toothpicks and everywhere we go there are cameras taking our picture. But, none of this is true.
We are normal and I hate it.
But we are also a mixed-race family in the progressive area of Hyde Park where the University of Chicago brings immigrants and so much diversity that when we move to the suburbs later I ask my mother, "Where did all these white people come from?"
And my mother is white but this doesn't bother her. She laughs at my question because I am a silly girl.
The white lady who yells at my father while I'm riding atop his shoulders points her finger in his face. She gets THISCLOSE to him and now I am frightened. It is the first time I feel the tightness in my chest that will take decades to identify as a panic attack. She makes me panic. I am panicked at her behavior and everything about this encounter scares me.
We don't get the ice cream because I keep crying and my tears have ruined everything.
I am 6 and foolishly believe that when someone calls me an "oreo" that it means I am sweet and desirable in a cookie form. My mother laughs when I tell her but this time it's not because I'm silly. She is hurt behind the eyes.
I try the word out for myself along with half-breed which my Aunt Cora calls me and my sisters. Neither of these end well.
I am 10 and we have moved out to the suburbs. It is a big house with a giant yard we will have to mow for the first time. A crabapple tree is out front and when my father paints the garage door in late fall of that year I have on a pair of my mittens and touch the door to see if it's dry yet. It isn't and I leave a mark, lying about it when asked later. The next summer my aunt comes for a visit and spends a lot of time out on the porch next to the kitchen. She drinks coffee and smokes cigarettes and writes. She's a writer which means she is also a people-watcher.
I have explored the neighborhood with friends and we fracture off, some people going home for lunch or heading back to get their bikes so we can meet up at the bridge later. The street we live on makes a huge S and winds around for what seems an eternity but from where I am it's easier to cut through yards to get home. Everyone else is dropped off and now it's just me and a white boy from a block not too far from our house.
Whatever conversation we were having turned into something devastating for me because, by now, I know the word nigger when I hear it. It's not the first time. The first time I am far too naïve but it drips off their tongue and out of their mouth with venom attached. The first time I don't know what to say so I don't say anything. I'm just a child, how would I know how to respond to such a slur?
The white boy takes it upon himself to use the word against me and by this time we are cutting through the yard between our house and the one next door. I don't see my aunt there. She is quiet, listening to the entire conversation which is quickly escalating into an argument and I only remember looking down to make sure my tennis shoes are tied and on tightly so that if I am faced with the choice I will either:
a) beat him up and leave his bloody pulp face for the next yard-cutters to find
b) run like hell until I can find my older sister
My mother tells this story all the time now. Her sister witnessed him calling me a bad name and then she witnessed me finding my legs and making the decision, for the first time, to take someone on when they are mean to me. I don't have my father's long legs below me from my perch on his shoulders. These legs are mine.
When my mother asks my aunt how I responded she tells me that she narrowed her eyes and leaned in to my mother's face and shakes her head slowly from side to side and says, in a whisper-raspy voice, "She gutted him like a fish."
My mother is proud of me. She is then and she is now when she tells people how strong I am.
We have ice cream for dessert. I think it is a prize. I will try to win at this again.
In junior high I begin to hear a phrase coming from some friends. Not Black enough. Sometimes, it's followed by laughter. Sometimes, it isn't.
I don't understand when that's supposed to apply to me so every time a racist joke is told I laugh. I like Your Momma jokes.
I try out some bad words of my own. Sometimes I get caught. Mostly, I like the way the hard consonants feel in my mouth. Too much Catholic school has made me afraid of cussing.
But I still jump on top of a boy at the pool who calls me a nigger. I gave him a bloody nose. His mother doesn't let me cut through their yard anymore.
In college I am asked to declare a race. When I applied I looked for the "2 or more races" box and couldn't find it. My mother tells me that my birth certificate reads "white" because the nurse refused to put "mixed" on it. She said that since my mom is white, so am I. At the time, I looked it. Blonde hair and blue eyes that turned greenish-hazel later on. By kindergarten I had an Afro and after that it was a hair disaster.
My mother is mad, even now, that none of my father's Black relatives or friends helped her do my hair.
I am taken to the beauty salon my mother goes to and the stylists squeal at my curls and run their hands through it and ask, "Can I do your hair?" and when it's wet it looks like white girl hair. When it begins to dry, their faces take on a confused look of terror because WHAT IS IT DOING RIGHT NOW?
I leave every salon in tears. The always cut too much off and they never moisturize it.
My mother doesn't have to pay for any of my haircuts. Guilt makes them free.
I am 18 and have begun to fill out my own paperwork for college. After the FAFSA and taxes, I'm on my own to pick classes and take the writing sample entrance exame and get my own textbooks. My schedule is on a card, torn off from the computer printout everyone gets.
My race reads "White" because, when I went to register, the lady saw me as white. I have giant 80s hair (but not the feathered kind because my hair won't do that) and pink lipstick so, yeah, I can see that. But I don't want it to read "White". I ask several professors and my counselor about it but the only answer anyone has is to go down to the registrars office and change it.
I go to the building shaped like a castle and take a seat until it's my turn. I tell the girl behind the counter, the one doing work-study, that I want to be "Mixed" on my paperwork. She doesn't know how to work the system and gets her supervisor who gets a "Huh?" look on her face.
I am adamant. I will gut her if she doesn't give me what I want. I ask her why she can't make this happen.
"There's a code for each race. A number. I punch it into the system and this is what it pulls out. I can't make it say 'mixed' for you."
Every semester after that one I return to the registrar's office.
"I want my race changed. I am Black."
They are angry with my constant requests. They roll their eyes and sigh when I come in and one time a new work-study girl is there. "You're not Black." she tells me studying my face after I have made my request.
"Do you have to put down what I say you have to put down?" I ask.
She is silent. I already know the answer is yes because the lady who works there told me.
"I've changed my mind. Put me down as Hispanic." I tell her.
The next time I am Asian. Then, Hawaiian. One time I am a Pacific Islander.
"Are you going to keep coming back and changing this?" a cranky white lady asks me one time.
"Yes. You programmed that computer. You're supposed to be smarter than the computer. You can fix it if you want to. See you next semester!" I chirp, walking out.
No need to gut her today.
But I'll treat myself to some ice cream for the small win.
I am normal and I love it.
with thanks to Anne Thériault for the format