“Sit down and settle in for a little story.
When I was a kid, 9 or 10 years old, we moved to a predominately White rural town about an hour from Pittsburgh, PA. My brother and I were plopped into a school district that consisted of approximately 7 Black kids. 2 of them were my cousins. We stood out.
Even among the Black kids we stood out. We had inner city accents and dressed as they did from our old school. Reebok’s with the pump hadn’t quite reached rural White America yet.
In fact, before we even started school I had a strong sense that we were not in Kansas anymore. My stepdad called us in the living room the night before we were to start school and looked at us in a way I hadn’t seen before. Pain, mixed with love and fear. It’s a look I’m sure my own children are now familiar.
He grabbed our hands and said to us, ‘If anyone ever calls you a n****r at that school or in this town, you have permission to defend yourself. That word means they think they’re better than you, and no one is better than you. Do you hear me? No one is better than you and no one should be using that word to you or around you.’
I stood there in shock. ‘What kind of school was he sending us to?’ I thought to myself. We went to schools in downtown Pittsburgh, and never got this kind of talk. Plus, he said the ‘N-word’ with a hard R. That was a swear word in our house and I just remember thinking, ‘I’m telling my mom he said a swear.’ But I honestly can’t remember if I told or not. That’s beside the point.
The point is, my first year at that school was awful and I did hear that word. I’ve heard the word several times throughout my life, but it was at that school coming out of the mouth of someone I considered a friend where I heard the word first. I stayed quiet. I justified, ‘Well, they weren’t calling me that word. They were just saying it.’ I don’t even remember the context, or who said it. I just remember my 10-year-old self frozen.
I froze. After months of being teased about my accent, my clothes, my hair, my body, I had no wherewithal to speak up when that word was spoken 5 feet away from my face. It was too late for me. I was so caught up in fitting in that I didn’t draw my line in the sand.
I spent the rest of the year working hard to drop my accent. My tongue literally hurt from learning to use hard R’s, long A’s and I’s. I changed my style to fit the style of the girls at the school that everyone liked. I got quiet. I learned not to raise my hand because the teacher would never call on me and when she did, she made it a point to humiliate me when I got the answer wrong and never praised me like she did the others when I got it right.
I shrank inside myself to survive. To not stand out too much. I couldn’t change my skin, but I could lose every other identifiable piece of who I was so I could blend.
I was an adult in my late 20’s before I started speaking up about things White friends would say to me thinking they were compliments. They weren’t. They never are. Even if you don’t mean it in a negative way. ‘You’re not really Black’ isn’t a compliment. ‘You’re not that kind of Black person’ isn’t something you say to a friend. ‘I don’t really like Black people but you’re different.’ Just no.
What’s weird is I used to feel a sense of pride. Like I was somehow chosen to walk through this White world, not realizing how absolutely damaging comments like that were on my self esteem and pride in my own culture. White rural boot camp did its job.
I can still walk through White spaces more easily than others because White people see me as the safe Black friend. The friend that walks, talks, and dresses like them. The one that jams out to country music and rock. The one that tries to see all of the other reasons something happened outside of race.
I’m still working on me. Working on what it means to embrace who I am and the culture I rejected out of safety and comfort. It’s a weird place to be, but I like it here. I’m learning. I’m speaking up about my experiences. I want to use my experiences as a bridge to understanding. I want to use the knowledge I learned as an adult to educate others.
I’m no longer a scared little girl attempting to fit in. I was never meant to be.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jacalyn Wetzel of Stop Yelling Please, and originally appeared here. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
Read more from Jacalyn:
‘My oldest son has said, ‘The school officer treats the black kids meaner. It gives me anxiety.’ I’d never tell you that at the ripe age of 14, my son ‘fits the description.’: Mom says ‘my mama heart breaks for reasons you’ll never fully grasp’
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