SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2009       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Cheryl Bivens

Am I White? Don't Know, Do You?

Neither Do I

I was born in 1961 where racism was growing rapidly throughout the streets of Buffalo, New York. Racism was all around me, in the school, neighborhoods and even relatives homes. Almost all sections of Buffalo were segregated. The Italians lived in one neighborhood, Irish in another and so on. I remember once when my grandmother had her house for sale, an African American came to look at the house, my grandmother sent my sister outside before they could even reach the porch to tell them the house was sold. If you sold to a person outside your ethnicity you were considered a traitor and shunned by all the other neighbors.

It was extremely hard for me growing up in such an environment. I am considered white because Italian (father’s side) and German (mother’s side) my father is Italian and my mother is German. These ethnicities fall into the standard white race category. My skin tone however, is anything but white, and as a child, I was even darker. When I would go on the bus with my fair skinned, blue eyed mother, people would stare at me. Some would make comments like “She is pretty for a black girl.” My mother would politely thank them. When we would return home, my mom would tell my dad about the comments people made about me and my dad would get defensive. “What do they mean, for a black girl?” he would yell. “She is pretty no matter what color she is!”... He would tell me to stick up for myself, and that beauty comes from the inside, not your outer skin color. I would wonder, “What rights? My black rights, or my white rights?” I was six back then, talk about confused.

I used to go swimming at the public pool and the children picked on me. One hot summer day, I could hear them talking, “Who is that girl with black skin walking in our direction? Who does this nigger think she is? Doesn’t she know our rules? NO NIGGERS ALLOWED!” As I step into the pool, I heard their hurtful words echoing in my ears "this nigger is getting into the kids’ pool! Someone stop her!” another child screeched loudly. The life guard did not say a word. He just looked on with a, cold stare as if I did not matter or have any self-worth. I can hear the children whispering, and feel their eyes gazing upon me as if evil was rising in their souls. The boy next to me starts yelling viciously, “No niggers allowed!” This harassment would continue on for what seemed like hours. No one would stick up for me except for my older sister. She was really strong and would scare all the other white kids until no one was left but us including my blonde haired, green-eyed twin sister. It was good to be black when I had the whole pool to myself.

About 1970, the city started to desegregate the schools. Instead of fire drills, we would have riot drills. I remember watching grown adults throwing stones and yelling vulgar names to African American children getting off the bus. It reminded me of the news flashes they would show regarding the Vietnam War. I would watch black children being treated like war enemies; there was so much hate. I was scared. My mind would drift into happy thoughts. The thing that helped bring me tranquil pool of calm was the vision I remembered from the Woodstock concert.

The concert was all about love. People carried peace signs in protest against the Vietnam War. As I watched the Woodstock concert on T.V. it was the first time I saw the poster that read “Make Love, Not War” There were peace signs on the bright green grass made of fresh colorful cut flowers. It seemed like such a happy, peaceful place to be. People would sleep on the grass under the bright twinkling stars shining down on them.

When I was about twelve we moved to Arizona. It was so insufferably hot, I thought my father drove us to hell. Once in Arizona, I became Hispanic. It is a little easier being Hispanic that black. Arizona was unlike New York. All the neighborhoods were blended with a variety of diverse race ethnicity. It was a bit peculiar however, whites and Blacks seemed to get along and whites and Hispanics hung out. However, Blacks and Mexicans had a fierce amount of hostility and resent towards each other.

What I have learned from this experience is my father is correct, beauty does come from the inside, we are made just as God meant us to be, and think happy thoughts. I enjoy the simple things in life like looking up at the dazzling stars against dark black sky. The stars always make me feel that there is so much opportunity in the world, opportunity to treat each other with love and respect no matter what color we are. I look up and wonder if somebody far, far away is looking up at the same incredible picture in the sky at that exact moment as I am. I find it fascinating that no matter where we live, no matter how far away, and no matter what shade of skin we are, we all share that one same brilliant, twinkling sky and no one can force you to leave. Maybe our country should unite and thrown another concert “Make love, Not War.” 


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