That time I had the race talk with white kids
How white children can benefit from racial diversity
“You burned your hands?”
“Then why is it a different color from the other side?”
That was the first time I ever paid much attention to the fact that the dorsal aspect of my hand was a different color than my palm. When you’re born and raised in a predominantly African-American community, that’s not something you bother to pay attention to. And it was definitely the first time someone asked me about it. The curious person who asked me was my college roommate’s younger sister — a white, rosy-cheeked little girl.
I would’ve expected a question like this at my first college, but not at my second one, an HBCU*. I could tell she meant no harm from her question, but my roommate’s stepmother looked mortified. My roommate apologized immediately. Her father, who was within hearing distance, looked from me to the little girl on my lap. And that was when I realized two things: New York wasn’t the mecca of diversity that I thought it was (or at least Long Island clearly wasn’t, which was where they were from) and this family (all white) was definitely going to let me take the reins on this topic.
My 19-year-old brain fumbled my way through what I knew about skin pigmentation while her sister (who couldn’t have been more than nine or 10) listened. By the time I was done, she — who was holding my hand and sitting on my lap — held up my hand, looked at it slightly longer and responded, “OK.” And then she leaned back to rest her head on my shoulder.
On the other side of me, I could see my roommate’s parents breathing a sigh of relief. They went back to watching the rest of the football game. Meanwhile I half-glanced at the game but spent more time looking at my brown hands, far more interested in them than I ever was before.
Dare to be different: A worldly conversation
While this was the first time I’d ever been tasked with explaining the basics of race to a child, it wasn’t the last time. I had 50 penpals** during elementary and high school, so I was used to talking about race and culture with people from some of everywhere — London to Ghana and Toledo to Los Angeles. My parents were adamant that I be open to learning about various cultures. However, I was definitely proud to be who I was — a brown-skinned black girl.
For whatever reason, the three of us never questioned why Santa Claus was black in my holiday photos and white at the holiday work parties.
I grew up in a predominantly black school (give or take a couple biracial kids) and early on was taught to love every single ounce of melanin in my body. But in addition to the penpals, I had a couple of friends who were white too (Angie and Sarah) in my elementary school years, daughters of one of my father’s co-workers. For whatever reason, the three of us never questioned why Santa Claus was black in my holiday photos and white at my dad’s holiday work parties. It just was what it was. Even when they came to my surprise seventh birthday party, they were the only two white girls there. And when I go back and look at those photos, I see them posing with as many of my 20 or so guests than even I did.
When “A Different World” is really different
Even in a multicultural high school, I was obsessed with the Harlem Renaissance and other African-American history and literature. That’s precisely why I had such little patience for the blatant racism I experienced at my first university. My mother nicknamed me “Ms. Malcolm X” because I became even more immersed in black culture due to that school trying its damnedest to erase it from academics.
By the end of my sophomore year in college, I knew I needed to transfer to an HBCU. I’d grown up watching “A Different World” and was excited to have a roommate like Freddie Brooks or Kimberly Reese. Who knew that I’d transfer to this school and end up in Season 1 of “A Different World” instead of Seasons 2–6?
My transfer wasn’t easy though. A couple of my mother’s co-workers convinced her HBCUs were “all party schools,” and I fought tooth and nail to prove otherwise. I wondered if my roommate had to go through similar challenges. If she nor her sister grew up in a diverse community, I wondered if her parents were also skeptical of the quality of education at HBCUs. These were my thoughts while I looked from my hands to the football game.
After we left the game and went out to dinner, her parents drove us back to the dorms. (They’d moved from Long Island, New York to Jefferson City, Missouri for a job opportunity.) It didn’t take me more than a few minutes before I asked my roommate the question I’d been wondering upon first introduction. Did she have any black friends growing up? She admitted she didn’t, which seemed wild to me considering the school she chose. On top of that, her new boyfriend (who she met on campus) was black. My roommate went from not being around any black people to being surrounded by us.
In the next few weeks, every single time I saw her little sister, she came running up to me. And I was happy to see her. Give or take five children total, I’m not a baby person nor someone who instinctively enjoys kids. But I liked that little girl far more than I liked my roommate. At some point within the next month, my roommate’s stepmom offered to pay me to babysit her. Initially my thought was, “Do I look like Nell to you? I am not about to be anybody’s nanny.”
But the way that little girl clung to me made me reevaluate my answer. What her stepmother didn’t say, and what I knew she was trying to find a way to say, was that her daughter could benefit from being around a wider spectrum of people. From the hand question alone, it was clear as day that my appearance was new to her. Had this same hand question been asked to the 7-year-old version of me at my birthday party — who hadn’t really considered race yet— the entire conversation could’ve gone awry.
I never did get to enjoy this off-campus “job.” My roommate and I fell out over something stupid — I believe it was over her not returning my CDs or not cleaning up — and by default, I was no longer around her sister. I moved off campus less than three weeks after a new roommate moved in. Although my “Maggie” roommate and I were cordial — mainly because we had mutual friends who wanted to party with the two of us and refused to choose — I was completely over college dorm life. And I was over having roommates, too.
But when I went to another football game with friends and sat up in the bleachers, I felt a pair of eyes on me. I found the staring eyes belonged to my roommate’s sister, who had turned around in her seat to look at me. She lifted her hand to wave and I lifted mine. I started to reach my arms out to see if she’d run up the steps toward me. But if the roommate and I were no longer friends, I definitely wasn’t going to make her sister choose between sitting with me or her. So I put my hands back down onto my lap, smiled at her and watched the rest of the game. I do hope, however, that she did grow up and find a few friends to answer more of her questions on brown girls.
Maybe then she’d be the Angie or Sarah at their parties, too — embracing black Santa Claus, brown hands and all.
* Historically Black Colleges & Universities
* With today’s social media, this is not a big deal. But in the ’90s when snail mail was the way to communicate, writing to 50 different people was unique.
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