I grew up with an Italian mother and a black father in a predominantly white town where the black population hovered just below 10 – including my sister, my father and I.
So by the time I hit my pre-teen years, I was not surprised when I heard racial slurs like “oreo,” “zebra” and the n-word, and even some I didn’t immediately understand, like “mocha face.” I was not surprised when some people griped I was “too white” and others complained I was “too black.” I was not surprised when my class took field trips into Boston and students shouted “Look at all the n—–s!” when we entered the city.
I had readied myself for these types of comments so that when someone called me a cruel name at lunch, or the boy I liked couldn’t like me back because his parents said so, it hurt a little less. I put my personal struggles in perspective and considered the plight and sacrifice of those who came before me, who endured much more than name-calling and forbidden dates.
But no matter how many racially-charged comments I faced with the most dignity I could muster, some statements — usually from people who were drunk or unaware I was listening — simply left me staring wide-eyed and speechless, simultaneously trying to pick my jaw up off the floor and process the nonsense I just heard.
As we all know, racism is powerful and pervasive, creeping into areas of life we are sure it can’t gain access to. And sometimes, people just say some crazy things:
“You know, looking at black people, you can really see how man evolved from ape.”
There I was, walking nonchalantly up the stairs at a family gathering when I heard a white relative blurt this out. He’d been watching a golf game and thought I was out of earshot, so he allowed his hatred to simmer above the surface, then smiled at me when I’d finally worked up the nerve to enter the room. I was 11 years old, and I was not quite ready to figure out that family is a seemingly protected boundary that racism can easily penetrate.
“Mick Jagger has a n—–’s lips.”
It was a middle school art class, and a girl at the next table over made this comment with an air of casual disgust. To no one in particular, or perhaps, indirectly to me. In a way, I wish she had addressed me specifically rather than ignoring the fact that I was 10 feet away, because by exclaiming this in my presence and pretending I didn’t exist, she made me feel both singled out and invisible. And I spent the rest of the class trying to understand what exactly a “n—–‘s lips” were, and whether or not Mick Jagger had them.