SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2008        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Samantha Martin

To Be or Not to Be, Black That Is

     My breathing was heavy and uneven and the air was thick with years of anger and hurt. I was unsure of what to do; I had no apologies because I did not know what to say. I was eight years old and I had no knowledge of the difference of races and I just thought skin color did not matter as long as you are friends. As the warm sunlight streamed through the window my heart was still cold with sadness because this man just wanted to be loved for being a person, not being black.

    It was not until that day in my very young life that it finally dawned on me that someone that has a different color skin would view themselves differently from me. I knew that there were different races and others that had different color skin than me but it never meant anything important to me. All the innocence and colorblindness disappeared that day, with one little statement, one moment in time.

    There was an African American man that attended my church when I was eight years old.

This church had some amazing people who truly liked me for me and did not look at the color of my skin. 

He was good friends with my older brother and came over to my house many times.

However, after awhile it began to wear on me because being black is part of being me, and it was like there was a part of me that wasn’t being acknowledged. It hurt and I wanted all of me to be loved even my blackness.

This particular day was no different than any other time. My brother, this man, and I were all sitting on the living room floor watching television. My brother had left the room momentarily and suddenly this man turned to me and said “I am paper black and that makes me different.” I was so dumfounded and shocked I had nothing to say back to him. I never saw him as different but this comment showed me I did not have to see a person as different in order for them to feel different.

    Paper black. That was all I wanted to say, for her to understand I am not one of “them.” I am different, I am not a gangster, I am not pimp, I am “paper black” defined by dignity and intelligence. I made a way for myself by hard work and perseverance. Why can’t she see that it is different for me than for her? She doesn’t see the daily fight to define myself as someone with dignity not dependent on my status, money, or girls. So many years of fighting and not being understood, I just wanted it to stop and I thought she would recognize this pain.

    She was young, she could not have been tainted by ideas of race or color and I thought she would understand that being paper black is being me.  After I told her, her confusion and disbelief hurt because even being young she did not see my race, my heritage, my paper blackness. It did not mean anything to her just like everyone else. This is something that I have to face every day; all or nothing, I am gangster black, or no color at all, but all I want is to be me, paper black.

    There were so many things to lead up to this moment not only in this man’s life but also in the world. For instance, during the early 1990s there where the race riots in LA that were always on the news, along with Nelson Mandela becoming the president of South Africa, and highly publicized racial tension. Now I did not know at the time that this was all about racism but I had a feeling that all that was happening would have dire consequences. After my incident with this black man it was now clear to me that racism and racial identity was something that was a big problem.

    As I know now racism is a systematic discrimination against certain people due to their race. I also more fully understand why my incident happened, because of all the high racial tension, racism, and segregation that was taking place in and around that time.  I see this incident as a way that this man was distinguishing himself from all the other blacks, which at that time were looked down upon by whites in my own community. For instance, during that time there was rapper Snoop Dog who came to epitomize the black man, for some people, yet he is only one of many representations of a black person. I also feel that this incident happened to me because I was of a younger generation than this man. He understood that at the time I did not know how racism occurs and it was his attempt to bring about a new mindset for me. 

    This incident brought into perspective many things in my later years that I would not have noticed without it. For example, it made me more sensitive to other racial issues like immigration and how Mexican and Chicano/a face different racial intimidation. It has also made me more aware of white privilege and motivated to work against the systematic discrimination and not take advantage of being white.  Overall, this weird yet eye-opening experience brought about a change in my perspective and made me more aware of the racial tension and ongoing agony that it was creating in not only blacks’ lives but also in other minorities and whites’ lives.


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