Pigmentation Fascination

15 Oct

I was born Black. As in, from the moment I looked in the mirror and I could comprehend that it was me staring back at me, I knew I was Black. My hair was big and this puffy texture. My skin, a deep brown. Moles covered my face and body. All my Barbies were white and I knew that I did not look anything like them. Besides, it’s not like Black parents dread “the day” when they have to sit you down and say, “Now Malik, we’ve been watching you and I think it’s time that we let you in on something: you’re Black.” You just know these things. And, even though I’ve known this fact for many years, that hasn’t stopped certain people from practically whispering in my ear “Pssst. You’re Black.”

When I say “certain people,” I am referring to mostly anybody who isn’t Black and mainly Whites.

All my life, I have been surrounded by White people. Even in Haiti, where I grew up, a country that is practically 80% Black, my grandparents and parents placed me in the only small predominantly white private school on the island. There was only one other “totally” Black girl in class with me and she was pretty fair skinned so I think she passed but regardless we would give each other these knowing looks like, “Hey, you’re Black like me!”

Being Black was a noun when I lived in Haiti but when I moved to America, I soon learned that it is also a verb. As in, “You don’t act Black.”

I never wanted to leave Haiti but I was intrigued by this country they called the “States” that I caught glimpses of on MTV.  Not to mention that we really had to move to the U.S. because the turmoil in Haiti had reached a fever pitch. When we finally landed in Miami in the summer of 1983, it was an insufferably hot day. My parents chose Miami because we had a cousin who was already settled there. This cousin, an older man in his fifties, had a two bedroom, 2 bath house. There were 6 of us, plus my cousin and his wife and 2 kids- you do the math. We slept on the floor- not directly but close to it. The house was kind of dirty which alarmed my parents and they tried to clean it but they didn’t want to make it seem like they were taking over.  My dad was especially grossed out because he is an anomaly: a straight guy who likes things to be squeaky clean. My dad will actually tell my mom that she is cleaning a dish improperly.

One night at my cousin’s house, a cockroach crawled over my brother’s face. The very next day my parents starting looking for a house. They found a 1 bedroom, 1 bath house and we moved in. Again, I ask you- do the math. We got a late start on things and I had to start school soon so my parents decided to temporarily place me in a public school until they got on their feet.

The public school they chose for me was predominantly Black and it smelled funny. The kids would yell “HBO! HBO!” at me, which I later learned stood for Haitian Body Odor. I smelled myself constantly during those months, dousing myself with my mom’s “Jean Nate” every morning. If you don’t know what Jean Nate is, don’t worry, it just means that you’re definitely not Haitian.

One day, these twin girls said to me “Would you like some ABC gum?” I said, “Yes!” And one of them grabbed gum from their mouth and pulled it out so it formed a long string and then held it up to me and said, “Here. It’s ABC- Already Been Chewed gum. Take it.” I stared at the ABC gum and my heart started beating fast.  On another occasion, the Batshit Crazy Twins started asking me stupid, insulting things and I decided that I’d had enough and since I had recently learned to roll my eyes, I went ahead and rolled my eyes at them. They both shouted in unison, “YOU CAN ROLL ‘EM , YOU CAN SHOW ‘EM BUT YOU SURE CAN’T CONTROL ‘EM!!” Shit. Who the hell were these people??  In Haiti, no one ever had ever offered me ABC gum.

I have twin brothers and a sister- all older- and when I said something to my sister in a snotty way a few days later, she rolled her eyes. I was ready. I shouted, “YOU CAN ROLL ‘EM , YOU CAN SHOW ‘EM BUT YOU SURE CAN’T CONTROL ‘EM!!” She was shocked. I was so proud of myself. She told my mom what I said and my mom asked me where I learned that. I told her at school. She shook her head and said, “Titine, that’s how Black Americans talk and you are NOT Black American. It’s ugly. Don’t ever talk to your sister like that again.”

Eventually, my father got a job at a small private high school. As a perk of his employment, my sister and I could attend for a nominal price. The school looked beautiful yet quaint and was made up of predominantly White students and they were from extremely wealthy families- Old Money- the good kind. Before I started school, my mother took me shopping to buy golf shirts (we could only wear 3 shades), pleated khaki skirts and penny loafers. Just like in Haiti! I thought. Yay! Uniforms!

Alas, I had found my people I thought. No one would offer me ABC gum here.     

One of the first friends I made at school was a girl name Lulu. Lulu, short for Lucinda, was cute and she had blonde hair cut into a stylish bob and she was very non-threatening. She wasn’t super snobby like some of the other girls. I went over to her house often, slept over and we would go to her country club to go boating, swimming or do whatever there- like pay for over-priced fries and hamburgers. Things were going really well between us and we would laugh a lot. I’ll never forget this one day when we had this silly debate about Elvis’ “Return to Sender.” She said, trying not to laugh, “I’m telling you that you are singing it wrong! It’s Return Lucinda! She started singing, “Return Lucinda! Return Lucinda!” I started cracking up. It was so easy to be around her.

We played catch with a softball sometimes during lunch when we were bored. One day, she threw the ball at me and said, “My dad likes you. He says you’re not like other Black people.” Gulp. I caught the ball, and then threw it back saying, “Like what other Black people?” “I don’t know. You’re just different,” she said.  A twelve year old girl is in no position to defend herself let alone her “people” from a comment like that. I didn’t understand why exactly but I knew that what she said was wrong. I started to look at Lulu differently after that day. Then I made the mistake of telling my sister about it who said, “Racist bastards.” 

Towards the end of my first school year there, I started getting comfortable and I was making more friends. I became close with this girl named Vanessa who I liked a lot. I won’t say that I stopped hanging out with Lulu because of what she said that day because friendships are very fickle in middle school. However, what I will say is that once you have a “racist moment” with someone, it changes your relationship.

Vanessa was short, Colombian, and we were like two Hispanic/Haitian peas in a pod. One reason we started bonding is because our parents were always late picking us up from school. As I said goodbye to her one day while she was climbing into her mother’s car, I noticed an older student who I kind of knew, walking towards where I was sitting. He had just come from football practice and his arms, legs and face were covered in dirt. He was a fair skinned Hispanic boy. I looked up at him and said, “Wow, Angel, you sure got a lot of dirt on you during practice.” He looked at me smugly, frowned and said, “At least my dirt comes off.”

Thump. Thump. Thump. The words bounced around inside my ear drum and my brain like tennis balls ricocheting off of 4 walls.

One day, months before, when I was at home, it was the day before we were going away to Busch Gardens, inTampa, Florida, and I was looking for my mom because I needed to ask her about packing for our trip.  My sister and my bedroom’s closet was adjoined to my parents’ closet. Who was the engineering genius behind this idea, you ask? I have no idea.  The thing is that if they left their closet door open and you opened yours, you could see clearly into their bedroom, a direct view of the bed. On this day, I twisted the doorknob to their bedroom but it wouldn’t open. I knocked and said, “Mommy are you in there?” No answer. So I went to the closet that we shared and slid the sliding door back and when I peered through, I witnessed by parents having intercourse doggy-style. As much as this incident shocked me and caused me to look at my parents like they were aliens for like several months, I can tell you that I would rather watch entire volumes of sex tapes of my parents then to ever hear someone calmly refer to my skin as dirt.

Sitting there waiting for my ride home, I was embarrassed to be. Embarrassed to exist in this body. I started to wonder, “Is that what everyone thinks? Was there a comeback for this? Would, “My dirty skin is better than that paste you call a complexion” have matched his insult?  My dad honked, I was quiet in the car thinking of potential retorts, “Dirt? Did you say? Dirt? Well, the dirtier the berry, asshole, the sweeter the juice!” No, wait, that’s stupid.

I didn’t say anything to my mother when I got home. That night though, I told my sister and she said, “That racist fucking bastard. Don’t worry about what he said. He’s a spic. ” My sister has a unique ability to make you feel better- money back guarantee. 

Many years would go by before I would hear anything that came close to Angel’s horrible comment.  I wonder what kind of like he lives now.

Regardless, the memos about my pigmentation continued to come in one way or another throughout the years.  Here’s a sample of the Top 10 I’ve had hurled my way over the years:

10. “Black people are better in sports than Whites because of their ankles. It’s been genetically proven.”

(statement made my current boyfriend who is, yes, White- forgive him- he deeply regrets that comment and p.s. he grew up in a town that is 99% White)

9. “My parents aren’t racist. I just can’t marry a Black girl or my dad would freak out.”

(statement made by my ex-boyfriend)

8. “I’ve never had a Black friend before! This is awesome.”

(made by a White girlfriend who I was helping with her resume)

7. “Why are the bottoms of Black people’s hands and feet white?”

(statement made by a 7yr old White boy I used to nanny)

6. “How many times do you wash your hair? Only twice a week?!”

(statement made by basically every White girl I’ve ever befriended)

5. “Wow, you’re a good swimmer. I thought you couldn’t swim because of your hair?”

(statement made by 3 close friends of mine)

4. “You can say that someone talks Black.  Except for you, all the Black people I know talk Black. I’m just being honest.  Most Black people have this way of speaking because it’s genetic.”

(statement made by the  same 3 close friends of mine)

3. (upon meeting me for the first time) “I did not know you were Black! All this time I’ve been talking to you on the phone, I thought you were White. I hope you take this as a compliment.”

(statement made by a Hispanic former colleague)

2. “Why are you laying out? Black people can’t tan.”

(statement made by a White former colleague during a company trip)

1. “Hey you! Come over here Black Slave Lady!”

(statement made by my boyfriend’s 7 yr old niece)

I’ve made a discovery, I think. Nothing groundbreaking but hopefully elucidating.

There’s something that happens when a group of people that are very similar, get together and they hang out with someone, one person, who is very different from them. Call it herd behavior but this I know for sure, if you gather 10 White people with 1 Black person, at some point in the gathering, one of the White people will say or act in a way that is offensive towards the minority either intentionally or unintentionally. Every single time that a racist comment has ever been said to me, I was alone. That day Angel made that comment, I seriously doubt he would have said what he said that if Vanessa was still sitting there with me. The day my boyfriend’s niece called me a “Black slave lady,” she never would have said that if my sister or another Black person was in the room with me. She would have been more careful.  Even children understand the concept of outnumbering another individual. She was surrounded by her whole White family and she felt comfortable saying something that malicious because she felt protected. 

The day my boyfriend’s niece said that to me, I called my sister. She said, “That racist little bitch.” I love my sister.

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