Friday, September 23, 2016

To The People Back Home

For so many years I heard “you’re not really black.” “You’re the whitest black girl I know.” “You’re such an Oreo-White on the inside, Black on the outside!”

I laughed and went along with it for so many years. Because I felt it was true. And not because I hated the color of my skin, but because I didn’t know to be offended. You all expected me to be a certain way. After all my parents were white so how would I know what “being black” really was?

Being around you all shaped my own prejudices. For years, four years specifically, anytime a new black person came to our school I viewed them through YOUR lens. “Ghetto. Loud. Those earrings are so big, her clothes are too tight, doesn’t she know we don’t dress like that around here?”

There’s an image burned into my mind from Junior Year. It was the end of the day and everyone was heading to our lockers. Right in my pathway I saw a white guy and black girl screaming at each other. “SHUT UP YOU BITCH” he yelled. “GET OUT OF MY FACE.” She screamed back. “I’M GOING TO TEAR THOSE EARRINGS OUT OF YOUR EARS.” “GO AHEAD. DO IT.”

I swiftly walked past them but my heart was pounding out of my chest. He was rude. But so was she, right? She should have walked away, I decided. I gathered my things and went to the bus. Something didn’t sit right. I didn’t know why, but I was bothered by it.

Let’s back up. I lived 5 minutes from school, but I always rode the bus. Bus 25. Blanche was our driver, and a family friend. It was 7th grade and I had taken the bus home after school, but this particular day I had lugged my tenor sax with me. I was sitting on the bus and I can’t, for the life of me, remember how it started. But suddenly the boy two seats ahead of me was yelling. I’m sure I said something...I wish I could remember what. I know I asked him to please leave me alone. And he yelled at me. I said “Please, leave me alone. I just want to go home.” More foggy memories...then suddenly: “Ugh. I hate niggers. This is why I should start carrying a rope and chain with me to school.” I started to cry and when I got off the bus, I screamed. My sister had picked me up on our moped and I threw my jacket against it and screamed and sobbed. It took her and my mom to calm me down to get the full story. My mom immediately called the superintendent. He was on our side of course, and said there was no room for racist behavior and death threats. The boy was suspended from the bus and also got in school suspension for a day. He also was told to apologize. I don’t remember that, but I remember being terrified to ride the bus again. Shortly thereafter he started to drive to school and I was so thankful.

Senior year, two popular football players were sitting on the Senior Benches. I was walking from the office to class and suddenly I heard an all-too familiar, and very outdated tune.
“Is he whistling Dixie at me?” I furrowed my brow and chuckled. They looked at me, I stared right back and thought “You idiots. My parents are WHITE. My dad takes care of your animals. You know me.”

But they didn’t.
None of you did.
You thought you did, because I was friendly, and nice, and outgoing.
But you didn’t know the stories of how even I was treated by some of our classmates.
You didn’t know that I tried so hard to differentiate myself, and failed over and over again.
You didn’t know that when I called one of my friends a “cracker,” I didn’t know it was a negative term. But everyone who heard it was shocked, and one of you tattled. I felt awful. I almost cried in front of you.
I would never “be black.”
I would never “be white.”
I would always just be an Oreo.

Thankfully, my sister finally cleared something up for me. “What do you mean ‘act black?’ A color doesn’t act a certain way. You mean act/talk ‘urban.’” It struck me like a bolt of lightning. “Oh my gosh, YES. That’s what I mean!” She rolled her eyes at me, like all big sisters do and we went about our business.
But now, I’ve changed. Yes I’m still adopted and my family is still white. Yes I still shop at Target, and Gap and American Eagle. I listen to country music, and pop, and I’m a sucker for acoustic covers (what I’m listening to as I’m writing this.). My boyfriends have all been white.
I went to a very white private college. I am constantly self-conscious about dancing in clubs. (Like..really, I’m black AND a theatre person so where’s my rhythm when I’m just having fun??)

I struggled with singing a soulful slave tune in one of my dream shows this summer because in the back of my head I heard “You’re not really black. You’re not like Patina Miller, or Renee Elise Goldsberry, or Jasmine Ceaphas Jones UGH. You can’t do it. You’re not black enough.” And you know what? I freaking NAILED that song. I shut down the demons and I didn’t try to be like my favorite black actresses. I dug deep into my own darn soul and found Star and what she was going through, what so many minorities in our country are going through, and what our ancestors went through while trying to escape to freedom.

Escape. How do I escape? How do I escape your cop apologist posts? How do I escape you telling the world that you “don’t see color” because it’s not important? How do I escape you posting memes of “black people who listened to the police,” or “here’s a black celebrity going against the majority of his black peers,” or “here’s a successful black woman, be more quiet and unassuming like her.” It’s crap. It’s all crap, because you want these people to be flawless.
You want safe black people. Yet, you don’t want Michelle and Barack. I don’t know why, because they ARE successful, and I’m sure in the past they have been pulled over, and they do go against the majority of their black peers. I mean for heaven’s sake they’re the First Family, but God forbid you praise a black man becoming the Leader of the Free World. That’s too much, right?

You want relatable black people.
You want me to keep wearing clothes brands that you think are appropriate for me. I shop where you shop, so I’m safe. I like Panera, and going to fancy restaurants and pubs, so I’m not like “those other black people.” I don’t “talk urban” so you aren’t threatened to start a conversation with me. I chemically straightened my hair for 15 years, so it’s not “nappy and unprofessional” like those girls with braids and Senegalese twists at your jobs.
Oh, but I did just cut my hair, and really it has nothing to do with joining a movement, and it has everything to do with the fact that I look like a badass with short hair, but now you probably see me as unrelatable.
I danced for 3 hours in a club the other night with some friends, with other black and Latinxs, and white people, and mixed people and Natives, and this is probably never something you expected Star to do, so now she’s not safe. Not approachable, because she’s becoming too much like “those other black people.”
I post things that should be common sense, especially if you consider yourself pro-life (which I know a lot of you do.) Yes all lives matter. But guess what- I can say “Black Lives Matter” and still know in my heart that all life matters. But not all lives are threatened right now. But the people with my color skin? Whether you consider them to be safe or not, their lives are threatened and they MATTER. And I will continue to say it.

Someone recently asked me if a certain relationships are worth salvaging. I daily, hourly, minute-by-minute ask myself that as I’m scrolling through my newsfeed. Some of you are willing to dialogue, but the majority of you are not. Those relationships to me, are not worth my emotional energy.
And I don’t say that to offend you. That’s simply to show that as a black woman in America, I’m exhausted. I’m so tired. I can’t comment on every post, no matter how much I want to. Because I know 98% of you won’t answer back. You’ll say to yourself “Wow. She’s not the girl I remember from back home.” And you know, I’m not. I left. I grew. I gained more friends of all colors and cultures, and I LOVE it. I broadened my world and my circle, and I learned, sometimes painfully, how to dialogue with people who don’t look like me.

We all need to do this. If you truly want racism to disappear (which by the way it won’t), you need to leave your bubble. You need to travel, grow, gain more friends of all colors and cultures and broaden your world and your circle. Growth does not happen inside of your comfort zone, but I promise you the second you sit with someone you don’t feel is safe, you will grow and you will learn.

You need to teach your kids that their brown friends’ lives are as important as theirs. Teach them that God made people with different skin colors and that diversity a beautiful thing, not a hindrance! Teach them about African American, and black, and Latinxs, and Native history. If we don’t learn from our past, it’s going to repeat itself, and it’s already happening. You keep posting that you want change. You keep posting that you want to pray for change. But the only way to actively see change at a small level is to talk to your black friends. Talk to your minority friends. Meet them for coffee, and ask them how they are, and what their thoughts are on the events of this summer. But more importantly: listen to their answers. Take notes. Ask them how you can bring change into your home, church, and community. Ask them to join you in being the change you so desperately want to see.

We, as minorities, need your help. We want to dialogue. But we can’t if you aren’t willing to talk. Stop shutting down. It’s clear you have opinions. But maybe set them aside to hear the opinions of others and then talk about them.

I’m still Starleisha. My family is still white. I live in a city now, and not my parent’s farm, and I still don’t talk “urban.”

But I am no longer safe. I’m done being safe. I want change, and that’s dangerous, but I’m willing to go after it.

Join me?