Back To Where I Came From
I remember when I was really young, I wanted so badly to be white. I remember sitting in school and being incredibly conscious of the fact that I was a few shades darker than my classmates.
On the first day of first-grade, my new schoolmates asked if I had come to school that day on a camel (to which I say: jokes on them because camels are dope as shit and if only we could all be so lucky as to have a caravan of camels for our transportation but mom decided to buy us bikes that year).
The weeks following September 11th, 2001 were an especially interesting time for me. I was only 7 years old - but old enough to know that something terrible had happened to my country and that my friends at school thought I was responsible. Within a few weeks after going back to school, I remember a classmate asking me if I was related to any of the terrorists. I remember playing alone at recess a lot. My teacher would not look at me. The other kids would not speak to me. The parents of the other kids would glare at me.
To be fair, what I experienced then was for the most part just kids repeating what they had heard their adults say. They were scared- everyone was- and I looked different, so I was at fault.
But those experiences stayed with me, and from that day forward- I tried my hardest to prove to the people around me that I was “normal,” that I was “one of you guys,” and that I was white. I did this for years, all through primary school, and well into my late teens.
I threw myself into pop culture, and I vowed to become the quintessential American boy. I pledged allegiance to the flag of The United States of America, and I made sure my teacher and my friends were watching me when I did.
No one told me that I could be brown and American at the same time. I mean, people told me that- but what was said and what was exemplified by the people around me were two different things entirely.
I was born and raised just 50 minutes outside Chicago in Aurora, Illinois. White privilege was the subtle, nuanced culture that I lived in; in which white people were the “main” group and nonwhite people were the “other” group. Everything about the community I grew up in equated being white with being normal.
I remember when I was 13 a lady came up to me in a supermarket and complimented my skin tone (I’m going to quote her verbatim because honestly the main point of this piece is to try and convince everyone that I have beautiful skin).
“You have such beautiful brown skin! I wish I could have a tan like yours.” — lady in supermarket, circa 2007
I became very upset with her- angry that she chose to interact with me because of my skin tone- but also ashamed and hurt that she had called me brown, and not white. To me, it felt like she had just blown my cover. Here I was, this brown kid trying so hard to be white- and this sweet lady blows my cover because she wanted to know whether I was born with it or if it was Maybelline.
I turned to the lady and very matter-of-factly said, “no, no- ma’am I am only half-brown, really mostly white, I’m definitely not brown-brown — my dad is from Scotland, he is so white.”
She looked pretty confused as to why I was protesting my skin tone, and before I had a chance to delve into my family’s immigration history to prove that I was indeed only half brown- she’d moved on to the bakery.
I look back on that moment, and it saddens me to think that for most of my childhood, I ran away from who I was. If I wasn’t running, I was trying so damn hard to hide it, or change it. That was my weird internal struggle of identifying with white, “normal” America, but at the same time being viewed as an “other” by it.
Flash-forward to October 2015: a man in a public car park is upset at me because I have taken a spot that he claimed was reserved for him. I apologize to the man and begin to re-enter my vehicle so I can move my car. “Wait, I want to talk to you,” the man says to me. “You and your people- you are what’s wrong with America. You goddamn sand-niggers come over here and take our jobs and our women- and I just need to speak my mind when it comes to you camel-fuckers. We don’t want your religion, we don’t want your culture; all of you need to go back to where you came from.”
I had been asked in the first-grade if I had ridden a camel before, but I don’t think this man meant it the same way my first-grade classmate had.
Fighting back tears, I told the man, “Where do you want me to go back to? I’m an American. I was born here.”
I got in my car and went home. I went to my bathroom mirror and looked at my brown skin. I looked myself in my brown eyes, and I cried because that day I felt the ugly side of all the “endearingly racist” things that had happened to me before that.
I’m not writing this to make the issue of racism about me, I’m just sharing some of my experiences.
I look at the people we are vetting to be the leaders of our country in the next few years, and I am terrified by how much these candidates fear monger people into being scared of those who are different from them. I am a born son of this nation, and I love my country. Diversity is what makes The United States beautiful and strong, but there are people in this country who fear that diversity.
All this anger we see from people screaming “All Lives Matter” in response to black protesters at rallies. All this anger we see from people insisting that their “religious freedom” is being infringed because a gay couple wants to get married. All these people angry about immigrants, angry about Muslims, angry about “Happy Holidays,” angry about not being able to say bigoted things without being called a bigot…
They all basically boil down to people who have grown accustomed to walking straight at other folks, and expecting them to move. So when “those people” in their path don’t move — when those people start wondering, “Why am I always moving out of this guy’s way?”; when those people start asking themselves, “What if I didn’t move? What if I just kept walking too?”; when those people start believing that they have every bit as much right to that aisle as anyone else — it can seem like their rights are being taken away.
Equality can feel like oppression. But it’s not. What you’re feeling is just the discomfort of losing a little bit of your privilege — the same discomfort that an only child feels when she goes to preschool and discovers that there are other kids who want to play with the same toys as she does.
When I think of my first-grade classmates who asked me which terrorist pilot I was related to, and when I think of the man in the car park, I see people who are frightened. Frightened of losing privilege, of losing status, but mostly just frightened of someone who is different from them. That’s a valid fear, to an extent- but that fear can drive people to do ugly things- to lash out in an attempt to defend their privilege.
There comes a point where someone has to choose to willingly perpetuate that fear in their heart; to close off their mind and heart to the idea of knowing another person beyond the colour of their skin, and then further, to ostracize or abuse that person based on the colour of their skin, or the fact that they are different from them.
“…in a patriarchal, racist, homophobic, and ableist society, there are social pressures to participate and engage in sexism, racism, homophobia, and ableism. At some point, you have to decide who you are and what matters morally to you.” – Gary L. Francione
Today, I no longer try to be white. I’m learning to be proud of my diversity because it makes me who I am. I don’t know who exactly told me that I wasn’t allowed to be proud of who I am. You can be proud of who you are, but not at the expense of making someone feel less than for being who they are. We are all diverse and we are all here in this country for the same equal opportunities and privileges. It’s something to be celebrated, not feared. I’d implore anyone reading this who hasn’t yet made the choice to look past their own fears when it comes to diversity – to do so. Just listen to someone’s story, and ask them about their experiences. Broaden your perspective to the point where you can empathize with or at least see their side of things. Staying in a dark corner, guarding your privilege and lashing out at others can’t be that fun. You should come out and get to know us.
“Ignorance and prejudice are the handmaidens of propaganda. Our mission, therefore, is to confront ignorance with knowledge, bigotry with tolerance, and isolation with the outstretched hand of generosity. Racism can, will, and must be defeated.” – Kofi Annan