SBS 301 Cultural Diversity         Fall 2001        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Janell Smith
My “Borderlands” of Race

 The biggest change in my life happened while I was in junior high school, the seventh grade.  I was only twelve years old and had just begun to realize how different people really are.  But if I had been asked prior to the seventh grade, I never would have thought that anyone had any type of differences due to “borderlands” of race or ethnicity.

 My father is a black man, and my mother a white woman.  While growing up I knew this all along, but never thought anything of it.  Joking around when I was young, my brother would say I was dipped in bleach when I was born, because I am so light.  Both my brother and sister are darker than I am, and we just guessed God wanted it that way.  Not until I was in junior high did it make any difference to anyone I knew.

 Growing up I was always around white people; I am white.  My family always had money, we had a nice house in a predominantly white neighborhood, and we never worried about money.

 In grade school I went to school with mostly white children.  My friends were all white (so I thought).  I never spoke to any other kids at school other than whites; I was just raised that way.  My parents never said anything good about other races or ethnicities.  I remember whenever there were blacks in the news they would comment on them as poor and the reason for so much violence.  So therefore, I never associated myself with other races, especially blacks.

 I was in the courtyard at lunch hour waiting for my friends to meet up with.  While standing there a couple of girls had come up to me and we started talking.  Both girls were black but to me it did not matter.  We just stood there talking until my friends arrived.

 I saw Janell standing there, talking with two black girls.  I was so upset!  Why was she speaking to them?  I started yelling and demanded to know what her problem was talking to these blacks.

 I stood there just absolutely shocked when I heard my own friends talking about these two girls like they were so different and how they would never associate themselves with black people.

 I was left standing there, speechless.  I couldn’t believe what I had just heard.  I was then left wondering what they would say about me.  None of my friends had ever met my father because I lived with my mother.  Did they have any idea that I was part black?  What was this issue coming at me like this for and why was it even an issue?

 The next day I went to school and told my friends over lunch that I was half-black.  Once these words came out, my friends just froze.

Janell told my friends and I at lunch that she was half-black, just out of nowhere.  I was so upset, as were our other friends, I got up and just walked away, my other friends followed.

 At that moment in time I had never felt so betrayed in my life.  The people I had been friends with since the second grade just blew me off that simply over my ethnicity.  It had never been a problem before, but I guess it was because they never knew.  But why would that matter anyway? I was the same person inside.

 There is a certain feeling of comfort among a race, within a race.  Due to this comfort level, people of a certain race tend to have friends and make friends within that same race.  Whenever this line of comfort is crossed people will become uncomfortable.  The certain “borderlands” of race are not crossed.

 In my friend’s all white world I was suddenly interrupting it with my blackness, which was unknown territory for her.  It was startling and uncomfortable.  She was familiar with my whiteness, however.   My telling her I was black was like taking her across a “borderland” she was not ready for, into unknown territory.

 This brings up the phrase whigger, white nigger.  It was a phrase white kids would say to the mixed race kids, people like myself.  It was always used in a derogatory sense, of course.  It was like, it wasn’t bad enough to the white kids that I was black, but on top of that I was white too.  In a way it seemed this phrase was the ultimate put down.  My whiteness wasn’t white enough, yet my blackness was too black.

 I could not understand what she was telling me.  I had been deceived.  She looked white.  She had blonde hair, blue eyes, and light colored skin.  I was in shock.  How could she be that way toward me?  I never spoke to blacks or had any friends that were black.  I had never been so deceived in my life.

 For some, each race is like its own “borderland”.  It can only be crossed if the individual is ready.  A race as a whole is comfortable with itself and so why interrupt it?  This is how my friend interpreted the situation.  Why was I invading her all white world?

 After that incident, I never spoke to Janell but to say hello in the hallways at school.  For me, it was too hard to be her friend, knowing that she is black.

 That year I realized that some people are not whom you think they are.  I am white and know who I am.  Maybe Janell was just passing a lie.  Looking back, I realized a lot of changes occurred during that year.

 Now back to reality for the rest of us.  I am mixed; I am of two different races. I internalize the “borderlands” between them.  I have two comfort zones, and maybe even a third.  Many others are in the same situation.  People in society would break the borderlands of race just by understanding this concept.  However here may be the issue at hand.  Everyone does not want or have any desire to understand or cross the “borderlands” of race.

 When I was twelve, and had lost all my friends, I began to see who I really was and who other people seem to be.  This to me showed that people do have differences and I noticed them and was able to start acknowledging and appreciating them.  I was faced with an important issue in life at a young age.  I then realized it was no joking matter.

Return to Personal Memory Ethnographies homepage