I can tell you exactly where I was the day I was called the N-word.
It was in the basement cafeteria of Potter-Burns Elementary School in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and I was in fourth grade. My parents had moved us to Pawtucket the year before, scraping together the money to buy our first house.
I’d never heard the word before, but the way the boy said it, I knew it was bad and that he was trying to hurt me. I don’t recall telling any teachers, but I did tell my mom at the end of the day and we had a talk about it, about what a vile word it is.
In retrospect, a lot of things changed that day. That boy changed how I viewed the world and more importantly, showed me how the world saw me.
My mother is Black, my father is white, of Italian heritage if we’re being specific. Before that day in the cafeteria, I had never realized that on Thanksgiving when we spent the early part of the day with my mom’s family they were various shades of brown, and when we went to a second feast with my father’s family at night that they had creamy white skin.
They were just all my family.
Race is never far from my mind, especially these days, but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I’ve been treated with the recurrence of Black media members and athletes talking about the racism in Boston after the Red Sox’s admission — finally — that players and stadium workers alike have had racial slurs hurled at them by fans in Fenway Park.
My husband and I moved our family into Boston two years ago, having lived west and north of the city for years. This city is not perfect, far from it. There are deep structural problems here when it comes to race, leading to the fact that the median net worth of Black people in the city is $8, but for white people, it’s about $250,000.
We’ve walked into small restaurants and waited an uncomfortable amount of time before anyone acknowledged our presence. We’ve tried to rent a house in tony Brookline only to have the realtor tell us “I’m sure you’re a fine family but the owners want to keep looking.” My husband, an IT professional, has pulled up to a work event at a private home and told, “the help parks in the back.”
But whether it’s because our home is in a neighborhood that’s still majority Black or the fact that it’s certainly more diverse in Boston than the other towns we’ve lived in Massachusetts, neither of us has experienced the type of in-your-face, aggressive behavior that most people believe is the beginning and end of what constitutes racism since we moved here.
No, for me I’ve never been made to feel more uncomfortable than when we lived in Pawtucket.
Not long after being called the N-word, the woman who was babysitting my sister and I at the time told my mother that we were lucky — she used to have a dog that attacked Black people. We didn’t know anyone when we moved to Pawtucket and this was pre-internet, so my mom had asked the principal at Potter-Burns if she knew of any in-home day cares or sitters to watch my sister and I after school, and that woman, who also had kids at the school, was who she recommended.
We don’t know if the principal knew the woman was wretched. My mother found a better sitter for us, and forevermore that woman has been known in our family as “the witch” because of her long, black hair and aversion of, well, us.
My mom reminded me this week that when we were kids she bought my sister and I a Barbie doll with long, black hair and we never used her — when my mom asked why we buried her at the bottom of the Barbie bin, we said it’s because the doll looked like the Witch.
There were times when people would look at me, with my light skin and braids and freckles or, as I got older and believed I needed to look more like the other girls in school, my shorter chemically-straightened hair and say “what are you?,” usually in a way that made me feel like I was an alien.
In high school, which drew from a larger swath of the city, I thankfully found track and field. The team had girls that looked like me. I started having some success, enough to build the confidence that had been drained out of me through adolescence and years of being subtly reminded that I didn’t fit in.
But just before I left Pawtucket, one last reminder. Someone I’d considered a friend for years asked disapprovingly why I’d been “acting so Black.” If you figure out what was so troublesome to him, kindly let me know. I don’t think I spoke to him again after that day.
One of the weird things about being biracial is that sometimes you’re found straddling this line, because you are part white and part Black. We live in a country that focuses so much on the binary — if not this then that — and sometimes you worry if you identify as Black that you’re forgetting the white part of your heritage.
Until a classmate calls you the N-word or a reader writes in to say you’re nothing more than an affirmative action hire and you realize that no matter how light your skin is, you’re dark enough for them to remind you exactly what they think of you.
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