The first time I ever felt behavior that I could clearly define as prejudiced because it directly involved my brown skin color, I was working as a staff writer at a newspaper in my home town in 1994 when I was 32 years old. I was the only black writer in the community and general news departments at this paper, hired by the editor because I had the audacity to stroll into her office armed with a portfolio of stories and an attitude I hoped would substitute for a journalism degree, and ask for the opportunity to write for the paper. With the exception of feeling like E.F. Hutton when I did a phone interview or the reality, with some people, that my presence was about as welcome as a skunk at a picnic, my experience there was good for the writer me. But the human me, the one who has never allowed a person’s differences to determine my like or dislike of said person, got a dose of reality one day when the husband of one of the ladies in my department came to visit.
As usual, I was polite, participating in light banter, when he suddenly reached over with his thumb and quickly swiped my hand with the simultaneous comment: “that doesn’t come off does it.” Since I’d never had anyone directly attack the color of my skin, my first response was concern that something was actually on my hand, that is until his wife started immediately explaining that he was only joking.
The dose of reality I got that day wasn’t an a-ha, frying pan to the head self-acknowledgement of my color, as though I needed this white man to bust any bubbling desire I might have that I’m actually accepted in this white editorial community. No, the reality was that prejudice could walk right up to you, smile in your face, actually touch you, and still harbor thoughts of you – a you they don’t know and don’t want to know – that likely mirror a sheet-clad history of thoughts, destined to result in lynchings or burning crosses.
Nothing in my childhood had prepared me for a moment.
As a kid, my parents never spent any time talking about prejudiced or racist behavior. I thought this was strange when I thought about it as an adult, considering that I was raised in Cambridge, Maryland, home of Rap Brown’s incendiary speech in the late 60’s; fires that burned black businesses and schools; protests by local citizens including Gloria Richardson. All of this, and more happened before my adoption to Cambridge in 1969. But I never knew anything about these events, nor the continued prejudiced and racist behavior that plagued Cambridge for years afterwards until I started reading about events later as an adult. So, I didn’t have a mentality to deal with that first moment of direct prejudiced, even though I’d experienced a somewhat indirect version years earlier.
In high school, a group of black girls hung the misnomer, “White girl,” on me and regularly taunted me with it if I dared cross their path.
It wasn’t a term of endearment or acceptance, but as a badge of dishonor because I spoke and acted different than they did, more like a white girl than a black girl. But not even this obvious insult – dubbing me White girl when my skin color mirrored their own brown skin – prepared me for later moments in life when I’d have no choice but to defend myself.
Like when, working as a certified nursing assistant in a Baltimore hospital, a white nurse reported me to the white unit coordinator, saying that I looked like I had an attitude. Her complaint wasn’t based on anything that I said to her or to a patient, nor was it based on insubordination of any kind. It was based simply on the fact that on that day – a rare day when I wasn’t smiling, wasn’t animated, and was clearly troubled – I wore a bland, uninviting expression on my face. When the unit coordinator failed to convince me that I’d done anything wrong, I suggested outright that by insinuating that a non-smiling black woman must be harboring an attitude, the nurse was prejudiced, and I left her office.
But deep down inside, my sense of humanity didn’t understand an attack on my personality for looking like I had an attitude any more than I understood a physical attack on my skin color, or the caustic White girl insults from schoolmates. In my book – one that had a much more difficult time understanding how girls who looked like me could be so heartless – each incident mirrored the same level of prejudice leveled at any person or group of people whose differences were thought of as foreign and misunderstood. It’s the reason black people were lynched; the reason gay people have been taunted and killed; the reason Hitler felt justified in persecuting Jews, gypsies, and anyone who didn’t look like him.
Prejudiced behavior, regardless of whether it’s directed at one person or many, has been the rash of acne marring our collective complexions – separating more than it includes – and passing down from history to the current generation where a five-year-old could have the presence of mind to say he won’t sit next to a black girl at the lunch table.
My hope is for the next generation to have different experiences, ones where the prejudiced actions of others won’t lower their self-esteem nor stunt their emotional growth. But my fear is that if, like me, they’re sheltered from the prejudiced experiences of their parents and grandparents, that they won’t be prepared; that they’ll falter and possibly fall on a shaky foundation.