SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2011       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Shera Koeppen

Black and White

“Black or White” by Michael Jackson, was one of my favorite songs growing up. Growing up as one of the few blacks in my community and attending all white schools, it was one of my favorites because when I was young I use to feel the way that he does in the song. I never noticed the color of people’s skin, not even my own. I never had seen a difference between me and my peers, even while attending nearly all white student schools. Things did begin to change for me as I got older and started interacting with more people.

When I was about eight years old, my mother remarried to my stepfather and he is white. At first I didn't think much of it because I was so young and skin color wasn’t an issue to me then. I grew up in a predominantly white area in Orange County, California. The majority of my friends were white; the schools I went to were predominantly white as well. I don't think the racial issues came up until I was in high school when my peers began to ask questions, such as who was that white guy that picked me up after school. Even though he was my step dad, I looked at him as my real father, and still do to this day. I call him dad and he adopted us and gave all three of us kids his last name. In high school I often found myself having to explain that he was only my step dad and why I had his last name. Even in public when my family would go places my dad always had to point out that my brother, sister, and I were his children, it was never assumed, even when we would go around other families. In high school I think that's when I first noticed that our family was different than other families. He couldn’t just be my dad; he was my dad with an explanation to the world.

As I began to go through high school I was embarrassed at first. The school I went to had about 40 black students in it and the majority of the other students were white. It was the first time in my life that I actually began to hang around peers that were the same as me, black. When that began to happen I wanted to fit in so badly with my friends that I didn’t want them to think I wasn’t fully black, or that I was “whitewashed”. My black friends used to always tell me I sound like a white girl and I would always wonder what that means. Was it because I used proper English, or didn’t use a lot of slang? I remember feeling angry because my whole extended family is black and they spoke the same way I did so I never understood that.

Even in my adult years I still experience this strange type of discrimination. When I’m with my father in public we still get funny stares. I’ll never forget the day when I went with my father to visit the navy base in Seattle WA. It was 1999 and I was 14 years old. We went up to the base to see the navy ships. My sister and I were so excited. When we reached the base my father immediately saw one of his co-workers and all three of us walked over to him. He was a very tall white man that stood about 6ft 3inches tall and was very intimidating to me. When my father introduced us as his daughters, the man looked at my father very awkwardly as if he was lying. I didn’t say much to him except Hi, and told him my name; the man then looked at my sister and me as if it was not possible that we were my father’s daughters. At the time I didn’t think much about anything except I wondered why he looked at us awkwardly when my father introduced us. The other families at the navy base also gave use weird stares and were not conversational with us. I still remember the white man specifically saying to my father “oh these are your girls” in a surprising voice. The day at the navy base really hurt my father’s feelings. I could see it in his eyes. After he introduced us and the man looked at us it hurt my father to see us notice how the man looked at my sister and me. We never spoke about that day. It was uncomfortable for my father and for my sister and I to bring it up.

Most of the time my father didn’t seemed bothered by others comments. Raising three African American children has had its complications and I know it wasn’t easy for him. He never looked at us kids as a color but he just loved us as if we were his own. He adopted us when we four, six, and eight. My biological father was completely out the picture when he met my mother so my parents decided the best thing to do was for him to adopt us. The relationship between my father and I didn’t start to change until I reached high school when I started hanging out with my black friends. My father started to notice my change in attitude when we all went out in public as a family. I felt embarrassed and my father knew it. I know that my trying to fit in with my peers hurt my father’s feelings. I began to develop anger towards white people that were like the man I met at the navy base. I thought they were all just hateful people and were all racist. Sometimes I still get mad to this day but looking back on the timeline of events that was going on during the time this happened to my family it’s really not a surprise to me anymore. The year 1999 was life changing for me but there were also many other things happening in the United states before and after my life incident which pertained to race and discrimination and may explain why people didn’t understand how our family could be interracially mixed.

The United States has definitely made a lot of positive changes when it comes to the interactions between whites and blacks but still racism was very visible. For example in 1992 the Rodney King Beating was a hot topic of racial discrimination. In Los Angeles, Rodney King was severely beaten by 4 white police officers. It was caught on video tape. The case went to court of course and even though it was caught on videotape seen by millions on television, somehow the officers got off free. That particular incident bothered many African Americans because if it had been the other way four black men surely would have been facing capital punishment. Los Angeles erupted in race riots. Incidents like that lead up to the Million Man March and Million Women march, which occurred in Washington DC in 1995 and 1997. Both marches demonstrated how blacks could come together and give a different image of how White people viewed them and called them on to things that needed to change. All that time blacks experienced nearly twice the amount of unemployment as whites, a poverty rate of nearly 40 %, and many schools that African Americans and other minorities attended lost over 1 billion dollars due to budget cuts. This made it very hard for African Americans to get ahead. There were also more black men that had gone to jail than to college. It’s interesting to me that the United States was still dealing with these issues at that time. Most people, including myself, thought that major racial issues had ended after the civil rights movement but it is clear that we are still dealing with civil rights concerns.

Even in 1999 when my family went to the navy base, the NAACP was boycotting South Carolina because its government statehouse dome still hung the Confederate flag. Racism was still very much alive and the rest of the country was still trying to accept the fact that blacks should be treated equally. 2007 just marked the 40th year anniversary of interracial marriages. Before 1967 Whites and Blacks were not legally allowed to marry in certain states. Citizens would be banned from states if they chose to be married in a state that would not allow it, forcing them to leave their family and friends and move elsewhere. My father and his peers were born during this time frame so for the families at the navy base to see a white man with black children come as a family it may have still been an unusual situation for the other white families, and for black families as well.

Getting asked a lot of questions at school by my own peers was difficult for me but now I better understand the history of race relations during that time. Even though it now has become more common to see interracial families, in the black community it is still frowned on to see a white man dating a black woman and vice versa. In 2008 when Barack Obama got elected as President of the United States, in the black community not only was it monumental and life changing to see a black man become president but it also meant a great deal to see a black woman as the first lady and a whole black family in the White House. As a child I couldn’t have even imagined that. Now even in my early adult years, it still seems unreal. That just shows how much our country is growing as one and now black and white boundaries are becoming more transparent. There are no longer things that blacks are not allowed to do because of their skin color; it may still be more difficult for a black person versus a white person but at least it is possible. Michael Jackson’s song of “Black and White” is a perfect example of how people are slowly starting to view the world. Skin color shouldn’t matter.

Even though discrimination was not uncommon at the time of my incident it still should not be accepted. I personally don’t think it will ever completely go away and be as Michael Jackson envisioned in his song because the history is so entrenched in our everyday lives, it makes it hard to forgot about the past. The best thing to do is learn to understand one another and don’t look at differences as a negative thing but an opportunity to learn something new.

Return to Personal Memory Ethnographies homepage