SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2012       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Essence Henderson

The Double Life

When I was only in second grade, I stumbled upon one of the biggest moments regarding race that I can remember clearly and for some reason it sticks with me as a crucial moment until today. In second grade I attended a predominately white, private school; so as a result, I was the only African American in my entire class for many years. One day at recess one of the girls in my class was crying about something and instinctually I went over to cheer her up; I was only in second grade so I attempted to cheer her up in the most playful and exciting way that I could think of. Immediately as I ran to see what was wrong with her, I gave her a big hug and proceeded to say, “aw, what’s the matter?! Mommy will take care of you;” in a playful manner. As soon as those words stumbled out of my mouth she instantly cracked the biggest smile, which in return made me feel good. Seconds after she was smiling and feeling better however, another girl in my class ran over and knocked my arm off of my crying friend’s shoulder and said in response, “No, you can’t be her mommy; you’re not the same color as her!” In the first few seconds of really processing what the young girl had said, I was more shocked than anything to hear the sentences that came out of her mouth. This was only my second year attending this private school, but up until that moment I had not experienced such a time where the color of my skin had been challenged and presented as a barrier.

Although I was pretty upset and confused why the girl would have said such a thing about the color of my skin, I didn’t really cry and process what I was feeling until later that night when I told my mom what had happened that day at school.

Putting myself in my classmate’s shoes, I imagine she would remember the incident something along the lines of this:

I remember one day playing on the playground running around with all of my friends and having a blast, everything was going great until I noticed my friend crying on the bench near the monkey bars. As I started to run toward her on the other side of the playground I noticed the black girl in my class going that way as well. When I reached my crying friend I overheard the girl say “don’t worry, mommy is here with you.” I instantly thought, “hmmmm, that’s a good way to cheer her up, but I would make a better ‘mom’ than she does. I want to pretend to be her mom as well!” The first thing that rolled out of my mouth when I heard the black girl comforting her was, “Hey! You can’t be her mommy; you’re not even the same color as her!” Now the black girl was walking away almost crying because of what I said to her. I was so confused because I didn’t feel like I said anything wrong.

As I reflect back on this day in second grade, I do understand how possibly my few words could have been so traumatizing for the black girl; however at that time I had very little experiences with the differences of race so I really had no previous knowledge of how to act or even think in this type of situation. I simply said what was on my mind and didn’t think twice about because that was the way I was introduced to race.

This experience came with a lot of different emotions at the time; however, it was a mixture of disturbance, anger and mostly an eye-opener to the role of race and the racial differences between me and the rest of my classmates. From that moment on, the idea of skin color became more relevant and on the top of my mind daily. These thoughts were much more prevalent when I was at school every day. I believe the reason why this still remains an emotionally important moment for me is because it is one of the first blunt incidents about race that I can wholly remember on my journey of 10 years of attending that private school.

This experience in was the first major obstacle I remember where my race caused a problem and as a result of attending this school for many years, it led to some major insecurities a little later in middle and high school. Attending this school led to many identity issues, feelings of inequality and a sense of not belonging. At this time of the story, I was experiencing my first encounter with the barrier of skin color. By this time I had noticed that I obviously was different than most everyone because I had darker skin and kinkier hair, however now I outwardly felt less than for the first time because the color of my skin was made an issue. The color of skin later became a much greater issue of insecurity a little later in life, however it has now become a source of pride. I wouldn’t ask to be a different skin complexion because I love every bit of it. One thing I always remembered was that there were never any teachers that reflected me. All of them were white and sometimes that bothered me as I became older. Although I grew up in a time without the blunt racism of 20 years earlier, there still was a clear lack of minority teachers at the school I attended. Somewhat related to this idea, the 1986 Wygant v. Jackson Board of Education case is an important previous event representing the lack of minority teachers and the inequality that was still occurring as well as civil rights era, affirmative action type programs, ideas or principles that were under attack and decreasing.

Growing up in Seattle, Washington for me meant experiencing and growing up in two different, contrasting worlds and communities. On one hand I attended one of the most expensive private schools in the state, whereas when I went home I departed to a neighborhood and house that didn’t reflect the majority of the school population’s living and economic situations. I lived in a neighborhood that had a high rate of crime, gang activity and violence overall. As I started making more friends and was starting to have “play dates” at their houses, I started to become more and more embarrassed of my living situation, the clothes I owned or didn’t own and my physical appearance. The wealth gap amongst blacks and whites (1994) is a great contributing factor to some of the insecurities I was having. My family and I clearly fell amongst the 56% of African Americans that didn’t own their own homes while nearly all of my classmate’s parents owned their own home and many other valuable items. Another statistic that would correlate is the fact that less than 1% of whites lived in places of majority black population. Not only was this apparent in Seattle back then, but this would still be a closely related statistic for my classmates from the Bush School today.

Every day when arriving and leaving school for many years, I was pulled between two contrasting worlds. At home I was the girl who was considered white washed because I went to a private school and thought I was better than everyone else also because of it. At school however, I was the odd one out because I was different economically, socially and physically. Not to say that I didn’t make friends, but every day I was forced to notice and recognize my differences and most of the time I felt bad because of it. On a more positive note, I experienced in a sense a different world than my other brothers and sisters or friends from the neighborhood because I was exposed to a class and economic position different than the ones in my neighborhood or family and had different experiences and encounters at school that enlarged my world.

Lastly, all throughout middle school and high school I was so worried about and consumed by the materialistic things that I didn’t have in comparison to my friends. I felt so embarrassed about this for many years. As I got a little older I would have a few friends over my house and I became a little more comfortable with who I am. I created an “I am who I am” type of attitude and felt proud to be black, which made things a lot easier for me. This particular moment stuck with me because it represents the way I felt from that incident in second grade up to high school attending Bush. I generally felt like the odd one out with respect to money, clothes, race, houses, cars etc. Almost everything one could imagine. I don’t however frown upon my mom putting me in a private school (even considering some of the problematic issues it created internally for me) because at the end of the day it has made me who I am today and has given me a great foundation educationally and has broadened my life experiences tremendously.

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