In 1999 during my 4th grade year in elementary school, I befriended a little girl named LaQuesha.
LaQuesha lived with her mom, brother and stepdad in a summery yellow house down the street from me in Mauldin, South Carolina.
Bubbly LaQuesha and her cunning dad quipped and cracked jokes on one another. Wide eyes, a headshake and bent arms flapping, he’d say, “Why you actin’ like a chicken runnin’ ‘round with yo’ head cut off?” We’d all celebrate his performances with deep belly laughs and tears at the corners of our eyes.
LaQuesha’s mom was a symbol of strength and her husband adored her; the tongue-in-cheek affection between them made that clear. I spent a lot of time with them, and I never saw them in a brawl. Her mom always seemed to sweetly smile, even when she was shaking her head.
The only play fights we saw were full of insults I can’t repeat as an adult. Ever. LaQuesha and I followed their example in jest.
On days when the Carolina sun was too hot, LaQuesha and I spent hours on her bedroom flipping through magazines about Brandy and Will Smith. My mother was a Motown lover, and everyone in our household moonwalked to Michael Jackson.
That musical upbringing primed me for when LaQuesha introduced me to some of the best musicians of the ‘90s: Dr. Dre, 2Pac, Aaliyah, Lauryn Hill, Boys II Men, and Biggie. I could go on. We gawked over music videos on BET.
When Ashanti, JLo and Destiny’s Child got popular, we started to practice dances together. LaQuesha and I would perform at family gatherings where aunts, uncles and grandparents encouraged me to call them by family names.
I was so loved and accepted. I uninhibitedly loved them back.
My deep connections with LaQuesha and her family are probably the reasons that I wanted to assimilate into black culture, even though my mom started to explore our roots at Pow-Wows and weekend trips to the reservation. I performed a culturally borrowed but popular dance in the big circles powered by deep, vibrating beats on huge drums, but I didn’t have a close peer. The only peer I knew at the reservation was separated from me in a very different world.
LaQuesha and I were solid BFFs when we started to attend middle school together, but she abruptly moved in 6th grade to a better neighborhood in a different town. I was heartbroken by the loss of my best friend, but I had already been culturally transformed.
My own stepdad was more than a little shocked by my hair the first time I came home with braids, but my mom defended the style because I looked cute.
One time I wore tight and gelled cornrows in my hair for so long that when I took them out, I had a fro. I wish I could have the fun of recreating that look now, but I don’t want to go through the pain and the itch.
Our family of seven couldn’t really afford the brand name styles of the upper white middle class, so my clothing style had limited choices anyways. On top of that, I was boy crazy but uninterested in many white boys.
Well, except for Brandon, who was like me – light on the outside.
That meant I swapped clothes and dressed like my black girlfriends. Jessi and I also tried out makeup on each other in class despite our teachers’ chagrin.
I seriously used to wear dark lip pencil around the edge of my lips.
Seventh grade started out great with the creation of a step team led by Ms. Austin, a snappy, slim science teacher with salt and pepper short hair. We won a regional competition and performed at our high school that first year.
But when 9/11 hit, I started to experience a lot of racist remarks.
Ashley, a big girl who already teased me for not actually being black, taunted me.
“You’re from Afghanistan!”
“You’re just another terrorist.”
Truthfully, I’m a mixed American Indian, but I desperately wanted everyone to believe I was mixed with black roots, too.
“How do you make your hair so straight?”
In 8th grade, I attracted the unwelcome attention of Jessica, LaQuesha’s second cousin. Josh J., the cutest guy in 8th grade and the object of Jessica’s very forward advances, boldly tapped out and sang Just a Friend to me after school in front of a cafeteria full of the afternoon bus students.
Jealous Jessica physically bullied me when teachers weren’t looking and demeaned me at school and in our neighborhood.
Despite racist remarks from a few white peers about me “being nothing but a cracker,” and the taunting from Ashley, my relationship with Jessica made me feel like an outsider for the first time because she was part of LaQuesha’s family. I physically quaked at the sight of her house on my walk to the bus stop every morning.
I was intimidated for good reason. Midway into the fall semester, she was expelled from school for smashing Crystal’s head into a water fountain, then ripping out her hair with chunks of skin attached. I secretly thanked God despite my godlessness for the justice. The bullying stopped.
My slow dance at the 8th grade prom with Josh went completely uninterrupted and without retribution.
Before my freshman year in high school, my dad wanted us to move to a new town for familial rejuvenation in a brand new world.
We moved to a largely forgotten town in the hazy foothills. This town and her neighbors were made briefly infamous for confederate flag rallies held in Wal-mart parking lot in 2015. This town was still in South Carolina, a state that still has an active KKK.
Even before I started school I didn’t like it.
I didn’t like their accents.
I didn’t like that white-bellied boys rode around with their shirts off and music blaring from their Jeeps. Bluegrass wasn’t an issue because of live band nights on the reservation, but I really didn’t like the whiny sound of country music.
I didn’t like that there were no black people in sight.
I felt desolate when I started school.
“Are you a Yankee?”
“No, I speak proper English.”
Actually, my previous black boyfriends had tenderly teased me about my pronunciation. Ms. Jones had taught me in 5th grade choir that dropping syllables is not pretty.
In this town, many people stay for a lifetime and friendships had already been formed. I think it was the first or second week into school when Joe W. asked me to be his girlfriend.
I chickened out when older white classmates jeered at me.
“You N***** lover.”
“You love monkeys.”
That was the day I bagged up and threw out all black culture inside of me.
I was spineless.
Unlike Joe and the few black high school peers I had, I could at least try to hide in low melanin crowds.
But being “not black” wasn’t enough. When it was revealed that I was an American Indian mix, one boy would sing Indian Outlaw as I walked into Biology class. Sometimes other boys would make poor attempts at calls when I’d start to answer a question during group work.
They had to use their hands to make a vocal wave. That’s the wrong way. A call only sounds right when the tip of the tongue is hit rapidly against the hard palate of the mouth to break the voice.
Hispanics were not welcome here either. A white girl with black hair and big blue eyes complained in World History that “Mexicans” had stolen her brother’s job. Our teacher scolded her harshly and probably without thinking first.
“If your brother had worked hard enough, he wouldn’t have lost his strawberry-picking job. Tell him to get over it and find other work.”
Even the issue of biracial marriage was a hot issue.
I was scared when my Science class in 11th grade marched on that issue. I think someone had said biracial marriage is taught against in the Bible and my friend Suzanne shouted out that God gave Miriam leprosy for her racist remarks about Zipporah.
From there, the dispute slid down a long hill of racism into a clash. My teacher’s entire face turned as bright red and hot as a coil on a stove. She had to force herself from the class into the hallway before she cussed out one of the deeply racist football players.
I didn’t make any contributions.
Looking back, I now completely understand why our English teachers packed our syllabi with as many immigrant and black authors as they possibly could.
I deeply regret how I treated Joe.
I also regret that I didn’t make a stand.
In doing that, I contributed to the hanging of the black culture in my identity as much as my deeply racist peers. I also betrayed my own culture by blending in.
Through my cowardice, I taught my racist peers that what they were doing was indisputable or even socially commendable.
But I couldn’t imagine a future of intimidation.
I don’t have the courage that black men and women around the US have to wake up and walk out their front doors every day.
I did not handle that pressure well.
So, I don’t roll my eyes when anyone of any race or gender talks about discrimination. I’m not surprised by protests, or riots, or violence in reaction to what is happening to them. I cringe at stereotypes, generalizations and the lack of allowance for exceptions.
In another life, I experienced this hate targeted toward myself. Despite the disgrace, I escaped some discrimination by disguising myself yet again.
But, Joe can’t.
Ms. Jones can’t.
Ms. Austin can’t.
Nor should they feel pressure to conceal their skin. Regardless of how I personally feel about these individuals at those juvenile times…
All of their lives matter.
“I see no changes all I see is racist faces/
Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races”
2Pac – Changes
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Maybe you can’t relate to my story. Maybe your experience has been prejudice, discrimination and bigotry free concerning race, class, nationality, language-fluency, gender, beauty and sexuality.* That’s awesome! You are genuinely blessed!
But that doesn’t mean hate doesn’t exist in your neighborhood right down the street or in your city on the opposite side of your city’s major roadway.
If you haven’t experienced this, I’d encourage you to simply ask a friend who differs from you in weight/looks, language, nationality, race, gender, and sexuality* to ask if they’ve experienced hate in your city. I urge you to do so.
*Sexuality includes orientation along with everything else related to reproduction, (whether someone has no kids or twenty kids, whether they can’t conceive or their children are on welfare).