SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2005        Personal Memory Ethnographies


Why Me!

On a typical Saturday in 1992, I went to work at the Shoe City, a store that sold women’s shoes only across the street from my mom’s apartment complex in Mesa, Arizona.  I got off work around noon and I went to the Fiesta Mall to buy a new outfit for my movie date who was scheduled to pick me up around 8 o’clock.  Where my mother lives two apartment complexes share the same street and there are about four different ways to enter into the complex, which can be very confusing the first time you visit.  So I suggested to my date I would meet him outside in the parking lot of my mother’s apartment complex so he wouldn’t get lost. 

At 8 o’clock I went outside and stood by my mother’s car and from where her carport was located I could see all four entrances.  A couple of cars drove past, none of them was my date.  Then a white pick-up truck passed with two white men probably sixteen to eighteen years old and one of the men yelled out “You nigger!”  My jaw dropped because I was in shock.  I looked around to see if anyone had witnessed what just happened to me but I didn’t see anyone.  I was in disbelief.  Deon my date finally came.  I had to bring myself together because I was too embarrassed to tell him what just happened.  I was not in the mood after that incident to hang out.  I wanted to hide in my room in the dark. I had heard about racism but I never thought I would bear the brunt of such hatred.

Just earlier that day I had gone to the mail, excited to buy an outfit for my date. I was walking the aisle at Dillard’s or Broadway and I didn’t find anything I wanted to wear on my date, so I spent an additional two hours shopping.  My date was going to pick me up in five hours.  The mall was crowded with kids running around playing as if they were at a playground and they were getting in my way. I was starting to lose hope so I walked back through The Broadway. I love clothing that’s colorful, sexy and fun.  So finally I found a versatile outfit in Broadway, one in which I can rock to work or on a dance floor. As I was waiting for my date I wore the outfit I finally found that day.  It was a leather shrug, an empire-waist dress by the designer Guess, and a petticoat by Ralph Lauren.  I wore my own hoops and an African beaded necklace.  My sandals had two and a half inch heels and the straps wrapped around my ankles.  This style allowed me to show off my free spirit with boldness, colorful accessories and patterns that demonstrated my uniqueness.

I was standing outside in my bold colored outfit waiting for my date to pick me up when the two white men drove past me and yelled “nigger.” In an instant, I went from feeling as beautiful as a princess to feeling as if someone had just spit in my face and stripped me naked for everyone to see. I got scared and started thinking, are they going to come back and beat me like those white cops beat Rodney King in California?  Were they going to tie up and drag me from their truck bumper, like James Byrd was by two white men in Jasper, Texas?  Who knows!!!  They would probably get away with murder through the white privilege justice system. Every race knows that “white” means superiority, privilege, and opportunities.

Oh child you need to get over it!  I am your mother and I have lived in this hateful world longer than you and have been called worse than that to my face, and even had to work for the person that spit on me!  If they are not paying bills or providing a roof over your head then do not worry about what two ignorant white boys yelled out.  If they were real men they would have said it to your face but they were a bunch of punks and are probably poor white trash.  The word Nigger means illiterate and as long as you know that is not you then roll what they said off your shoulder.

Mom, you don’t understand, this state doesn’t even honor the Martin Luther King holiday.  What does that say about the people who live in this state?  They are racist and blacks don’t need to be in this state.  I go to school and I am the only black female in all my classes. I ‘m tired of seeing white boys sagging their pants, bumping rap music in their nice BMW’s or Mercedes.  And the white girls are trying to wear some of our short cut hairstyles and dating our black men. At least in your time blacks stuck together. 

Well, you are going to have to adjust.  I’ve been in this world for 50 plus years and people are going to say some mean things. If you let every word that someone says get you down you are not going to make it in this world. Yes, those white men were wrong for what they called you but you don’t know what caused them to say that. Maybe they are tired of black men dating white girls; maybe they are mad because they lost their job to a black person or a person of color.  The Martin Luther King holiday just came into effect 1992 in Arizona so there are some mad white people. You could have been product of that anger.  Now go have fun on your date with your new man you just met.

After that night and despite my dark skin I did not want to be black. I wanted to be a white girl who grew up in a white, middle-class neighborhood.  I didn’t want to be associated with blacks. I wanted to ignore the obvious, believe the improbable. I didn’t want to be part of a race that people would read about in the newspaper—the black ghetto on the east side and the crime and the poor housing conditions. Why would I want to be black? I read about how blacks were portrayed in the media in the 1960’s, when they sprayed black civil-rights protesters with fire hoses.

I asked my mother what is her definition of America because she was born and raised in Jamaica. Her definition took me by surprise — a white America that has been lied to, a black America oppressed and discriminated against, and a society unable or unwilling to discuss race. I didn’t know what to say to this, because she is the woman who told me to let what those white boys said to me roll off my shoulder. I had thought she lost her identity because she didn’t get angry because I was called a nigger. But now she advised, white people need to realize that racism is not a black issue, it’s a white issue.

Finally, I feel we need white people to actively, visibly and publicly examine their own role in perpetuating racism in subtle and unconscious ways, to acknowledge and own their part in the problem, to verbalize the unearned privileges that accrue to them simply because of their skin color and to demand those same privileges for people of color.

Some say we should live in a colorblind world — that we are all human, after all. But if we are unable to see race, we cannot see racism — and denial is not a strategy.

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