I couldn’t tell you the first time I realized I was black and what that meant for me and my place in the world, but when it comes to race, two major moments stand out to me in my mind. There was the time my parents strolled around a suburban New Jersey shopping mall and an eight-year-old me spotted a dark-skinned model on a cosmetics display that I playfully referred to as “Tar Baby”. Naïve and not taking too much seriously at the time, I was merely repeating a phrase I had come across on TV without taking in the context in which it was discussed. I thought I had come up with the most clever diss that a middle-schooler had ever contrived and was testing out my newfound insult until the back of my mother’s hand and all three of her rings sporting some very hard diamond and peridot stones hit me across my forehead and let me know what time it was. It was just quick enough to embarrass me for what felt like forever although passersby didn’t even seem to notice. My parents never got into a deep discussion about the origins of the term but they were visibly angry for the remainder of the shopping trip and my Dad only briefly remarked while driving over the bridge back to Philly, “That term was used to hurt and shame many people a long time ago. It’s not a joke and we don’t say it.”
The second brush with racism was the wake-up call that I was black and that’s all some people were ever going to care about and as much as I’d like to think we were past Jim Crow and “separate but equal”, my Caucasian classmates at the liberal arts school I went to in Amish Country, PA clearly weren’t. To make a long story short, I was working on a monthly newsletter as a part of my internship for the campus Women’s Center. The newsletter highlighted campus events around women’s history taking place that March and included a few light, fluffy stories about campus life. It included nothing racially charged or pro-black…or so I thought. The truth is there aren’t a lot of blonde-haired, blue eyed young women creating campus newsletters with the name “Toya” and that was the only thing I could think of that might give away that I was black that someone could tell from a piece of paper created with Microsoft Publisher alone. Either that or someone knew an African-American was behind that edition of the “Potty Paper” and proceeded to enter every public women’s restroom on campus where my senior project was hanging and scribble a swastika across it. At the time I was so in shock that someone would have an issue with anything I had written just because I was black, that I didn’t notice that faculty that ran the center pretty much swept the incident under the rug. Back then they gave the mandatory verbal, “This is disgusting and we don’t stand behind this,” spiel, the obligatory sympathetic, “It must be so hard to be black,” gaze, and committed to removing the graffiti- covered posters and replacing them with swastika-free prints. Nothing was said to the dean or other forms of authority. Today I would have taken to Facebook, put that school, the center and all of its white staff on blast, alerted the whole handful of blacks on campus that we needed to track down the racists and probably gotten some GoFundMe money towards the Black Student Union on campus. But back then it was the first time I realized I was a black girl and that alone was reason for people to hate me, and honestly I didn’t know what to do.
A CNN series is shedding light on the racist experiences of celebrities and not so famous people of color alike and challenging to them to reflect them on first experiences that made them realize what being black in this world truly means. The series actually premiered last year, but is making the rounds again due to the start of Black History Month. Van Jones, Don Lemon and Michaela Angela Davis are a few of the people tapped to share their earliest experiences dealing with racism. Stories include interracial relationships, being racially profiled by police, being called the N-word on the playground as a child, and even a group of white “friends” spitting in a can of Coke being drunk by a their black friend as a joke.
If anything the series allows viewers to see the experience of being black through the eyes of those who have lived it, which is necessary in a political climate where the current administration seems to be painting the black experience to be brighter than it may actually be. You can check out a compilation of some of the stories shared below as well as view the individual stories in their entirety here.