Monday, January 18, 2010

Today, I'm Not Mad At Harry Reid

As my pseudonym suggests, I have a complicated background. Growing up in Montgomery, AL, presented several challenges for a girl from the West side raised by blue collar parents. I remember my childhood in long bus rides across town to the more affluent neighborhood schools (read: white). My friends had straight blond hair, nicer houses, and it never seemed that their parents had to worry about where the next meal was coming from or how the power bill would be paid any particular month. At age 8, friends from school invited me to church and pretty soon I was living a life in two different worlds and I was learning the value of camouflage. I learned to fit in to a world where it became a joke to suggest that I was actually a black American. And I eventually learned to turn the proper down a notch when answering my phone at home, so as not to confuse family friends into thinking they had called a house that belonged to “somebody white” and hanging up. I taught myself to take it as a compliment when older white ladies in my church described me as “articulate” (Reid: speaking without a Negro dialect). I did notice that they never described my white friends that way—it was assumed that they would speak standard written American English. But I am neither mad at them nor Senator Reid.

I capitalized on the opportunities that being the polite, articulate little black girl brought me.

I was always at the top of my class, even playing teaching assistant in grammar school since I was always the first child done with classroom assignments. I attended an academic magnet school program for junior high; and when given the opportunity for a scholarship to a rigorous college preparatory school where I would be the only black female (again…and still) in my class, I traded in my gold hoops for a string of pearls and hop scotched my way from The Montgomery Academy to Duke to the District. It was surprising, and then disheartening to hear my college friends joke that I am “whiter than they are” until they once again became shocked, confused, and noticeably uncomfortable with my identity crisis after eavesdropping on one of my phone calls with family or friends from home and witnessing the ease of my slip into a more ethnic vernacular. These jokes could have made for strained relationships with white America, but I realized early on that the joke was actually on them for not getting my duality—its purpose and how it wasn’t a choice. It was necessary to succeed in their world. And now we know that even Washington can be a difficult place to navigate for a chameleon like me. It’s not only the words that I’m most troubled by so much anymore. I’m having trouble with the climate that mid-Obama America has somehow confused with post-racial America—these are not the same. I have been able to excel academically and in my career partly because I am capable and I have earned it, partly because I am a non-threatening black woman, and partly because I am novel. This is how my world is and this is how your world is. I am not saying it is O.K. I’m saying it’s the truth. And it makes me just as uncomfortable as it makes you. So, as soon as we stop pretending that this is a Washington partisan politics problem, and realize this reaches down to the little girl in the hood striving to make the honor roll so she can have the same opportunities as I, the sooner I can feel confident that my children won’t also be praised and rewarded just for being non-threatening Oreos.

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