White kids don’t get anything for dinner but macaroni and cheese. My mother glances at me from across our dinner table, jabbing a forkful of Spaghetti Again in the air. I am seven years old and complaining about how often we have Spaghetti Again for dinner. She says I’m lucky. She says white folks feed their children side dishes as main courses. They also wash their bodies with their hands instead of wash cloths — hands all up in they butts. They wear sweaters inside their houses during winter and never turn on the heat. White folks don’t get cold.
She means real white folks. White white. Not white like Peter, the boy standing next to me outside of my third grade classroom. Peter is half white in a sea of full black, Baltimore city black. Peter is yelling, hungry arms on scrawny hips, chicken legs in too-short pants. He says Jesus was white — like he is. And then I hear a crack of knuckle to Peter’s white bones; he crumples to the ground, spills blood like his not-quite-white Idol. Jesus wasn’t no white, nigga. And neither is you, nigga.
I mean white like the way I talk. I talk white. Patrice is telling me so during language arts while we read a story about a very tall white man and a very fat blue cow. Patrice has chunky wooden beads on the end of each of her braids and when she moves she sounds like one of the instruments we play in music class. Why do you talk white? I tell her my whole family is black and they all talk like me. She shakes her head. Clack clack.
I don’t talk black but I am black — the same kind of black as another girl in my eight grade English class. The one who always gets called my name. The one whose mother gets asked how I’m doing. It’s hard to tell us apart because she’s a good one, too. We’re better than the others. That’s why my mother wants me to invite her over for dinner next week. You need some black friends; all of your friends are white.
My boyfriend is white, too. His mother reminds me when I call one evening. She tells me I can’t see him and asks me not to call her house anymore. He tells me so again, a week later, when we fuck in my shower while my little sister is at Tae Kwan Do. I stare at him through the steam. He says he’s embarrassed because he’s just a skinny white boy. I think I am just a skinny black girl; but he makes me feel like something else, something other. In a good way, but also bad way.
Bad like cursed, the way my grandma says we are when she comes to visit for my high school graduation. She peers out of the living room window, into our sun-drenched yard and asks why our white neighbor is cutting our grass. You know him? She lights another cigarette. She smokes too much. You trust him? When he finishes, she goes outside in a bright red muumuu and pink slippers and searches the yard for roots she says he may have hid. For a hex, she says. They’ll put a hex on you.
When she says they, she means white men. White men are worse than other men. This is why my mother is relieved when I come to visit from NYU and bring home a tall, skinny boy with a wide smile, a French accent and brown, brown skin. He is not black. At least he’s not white.
But he is white. He’s also black. And south Asian. And depending on his mood he speaks of all three with a kind of distance or with an unearned familiarity. I sit across from him on the balcony of our studio, looking down at the cobbled Parisian streets. I ask him if he thinks I talk white, sound white. He laughs — melodic — and pours me a second glass of our cheap red wine. You sound American.