White kids taught me that I am Black. They didn’t intend to. None of us knew any better. The real source of their instructions came from the world at large which was, likewise, shaping my thoughts.
What I remember is my peers, from whom I sought acceptance and approval. Growing up in Duluth as the lone brown skinned boy in all of my elementary school classes, I developed a desire to not be different. I never wanted to be white. I wished the differences between me and my classmates could go unnoticed. I tried to be quiet and cooperative in class. I hung around the edge of the playground. I peeked over shoulders in a crowd of other children. I ignored my race as best I could, but I was confronted by it so many times I was forced to internalize it. Sometimes I was reminded of race in innocent ways. A couple of times when I was in maybe second or third grade, my fair-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed mom picked me up from school and a classmate asked if I was adopted. I don’t remember how I responded, but I remember being asked more than once. I was able to laugh off the mistake, but the question proved to be unforgettable.
As I finished elementary school, my race became more of a target. I was picked on like many children are due to weight, or height, or clumsiness. My complexion made me a scapegoat to other kids in the schoolyard; but perhaps no more than any other fourth grade nerd. The racialized teasing became sharper in middle school. My white classmates called me “nigger” many times a day; more times than I could count. These kids did not mean to challenge all people of color. It was the lack of color in my school that emboldened them. There was no vitriol behind the slur. They never tried to cast me out because that would have been the end of their fun. On the contrary, each of them impressed upon me how he was merely my “friend” making a “joke”. Like many adolescents, we were mischievous and insensitive enough to find humor in tormenting one another. They found it all very funny, and they were only more thrilled to gamble that I couldn’t stop them. I argued and threatened anger and violence, but I wasn’t really willing to fight over it.
There were other days when the racial teasing was less insulting. At times I even played along, grateful to be included even as the butt of the joke. I imagined that true acceptance lied on the other side of the teasing so I kept coming back for more. I hoped that, if I remained cooperative, my skin color would cease to interest people. In hindsight, I can think of many wiser responses to being called “nigger” so often, but I was just a kid. Paralyzed by confusion and embarrassment. As kids, we couldn’t wait to venture out of earshot of all the adults, not realizing how our immaturity and heedlessness will compound to scar one another.
Were the adults in my life equipped to deal with this racial tension in a healthy way? Throughout childhood I was taught that bad things like slavery happened and that good people like Martin Luther King had a role in this country’s past. Figures in American history were to be idolized more than understood. Teachers summed up black resistance to oppression in occasional and predictable bite sized history lessons. These lessons left us with no words to understand the present.
As pitiful as these anecdotes may be, I was ultimately not debilitated by them. In the aggregate, they caused introspection more than pain. Through this melodrama, I began to analyze what others expected of me and to design my behavior accordingly. I spent my youth struggling against the instinct to comply with what others expected of me. As I tried to focus my attention on other things, my curious or mischievous classmates would draw me back to it. They led me to wonder what blackness meant to the world and what it was supposed to mean to me.