“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” – James A. Baldwin
There’s always that single familiar moment when a friend comes to my house for the very first time: the look of awe on their face. Their eyes scan the giant house, the three car garage, the Lexus in the driveway. “Wait. You live here?” I can almost hear them say in their minds. One girl shamelessly asked, “What does your dad do again?” While most people will compliment the house or giddily ask for a tour, a noticeable few have stayed silent. They say absolutely nothing, as we enter through the front door, their eyes darting from the sunken living room to the crystal chandelier. Their silence is overwhelmingly loud though and in that moment I feel guilty every time, like I Catfished them and now I’m exposed for being the “spoiled lil rich girl” their mind has in an instant recasted me to be.
I grew up in a very white middle-class New Jersey suburb. The kind of quiet suburb where I rode my bike in the middle of the street around the neighborhood, would disappear for hours into the woods in our backyard with my friends, played on our town’s recreation soccer team my dad helped coach. On the weekends, we might go swimming at someone’s house. In fourth grade, someone decided the Kate Spade backpack was a must-have accessory (I never got one). By middle school, going for dumplings at the local Chinese restaurant was our after school happy hour. If a documentary film crew followed my friends and me around, they’d be bored to death watching our Disney channel suburban young lives.
Sleepovers weren’t reserved for special occasions and our home was the site for most of them, as I lived in the biggest house among my friends in a section of my town locals refer to as “The Top.” The road to “The Top” takes you on an empty whindy journey up a giant mountain situated above our town’s only claim to fame – a private, world-class golf course. You know you’ve arrived once you spot your first sign of civilization: a succession of mini-mansion after mini-mansion in this strange gaudy dimension that exists a world away from the simple small-town life in the main part of town down below. Soliciting a ride home from a friend’s parent and telling them you lived on “The Top” might generate a slight, unconscious eyebrow raise of fascination. Growing up, I was mostly just annoyed that our house was just far enough that I had to take the stupid bus to school everyday. But now, I also can’t help but wonder if my family living on “The Top” made other parents feel just a tad bit more comfortable sending their kids to our house to sleepover.
You see, growing up in my town, I was usually the only black face in the room. That’s the sacrifice you make as black parents who have the privilege to choose where to settle a family and decide on a safe neighborhood with a good school system. As penance, your very black kids are sometimes subjected to isolation and learn the hard way at a young age what it means to be black. There was the slumber party I went to where the mom set out everyone’s sleeping bag, except mine. My friend’s birthday party at a hair salon where everyone got hair wraps and I got my makeup done instead. That time I went away for spring break and came back to boys in my class laughing about my “tan.”
Needless to say, my parents never let us get too comfortable in our town and made a swift calculated effort to keep my siblings and me very black and very humble. One weekend I’d go to a classmate’s bat mitzvah, the next I was yawning in the pews at my mom’s Jamaican Pentacostal church and watching the women around me speak in tongues. One season I played recreation softball for my town, the next I ran track for an all-black track and field club a few towns away. One summer I went to a fancy sleepaway camp complete with a trapeze and Olympic size swimming pool, the next summer I went to an all-black camp where my counselors were from South Africa and Tanzania.
With both of my parents having offices in a predominantly black inner city just a few miles away, as I got older, I spent more and more of my extracurricular time there. I spent summers working at my mom’s office hanging out with the Caribbean home health aides. I joined a praise dance team with girls from our church. I took free SAT prep classes alongside students whose parents couldn’t otherwise afford courses like Princeton Review. During the holidays, we’d spend hours wrapping and giving away toys to needy kids in the community or distributing hot meals to the homeless. Soon enough, our town where we lived merely became a place where we slept. And it was at slumber parties where my two worlds would collide – my white school friends and my black church friends. I then realized that I existed in this interesting dichotomy curated by my parents, residing in a safe nestled cul-de-sac living the white American suburban dream, but not on a separate planet out of touch with my black skin or unexposed to how most other black people live.
While it was important for my parents that we knew other black people outside of our family, it was similarly important that those black people weren’t also doctors and lawyers and their sons and daughters. My mom and I lasted through exactly two whole meetings and a ski trip with Jack and Jill, a social club for well-to-do black families, before we developed a similar distaste for “bougieness.” When one of the mothers raved about having flown to Los Angeles to have her hair done, I noticed that being “bougie” was an epithet that was worn by many with some sort of humorous pride. From Jack and Jill, I felt this interesting tension of black pride and community mixed with an unhealthy distance from those “other blacks.” In college, while I watched and wondered why all the prep school black girls sat together at lunch, I, on the other hand, settled into a seat next to my friends – a Gates Millennium scholar and a Nike Air Force 1 wearing Dominican girl from Brooklyn.
Yet soon enough, where you find privilege you usually find hidden feelings of guilt. When those free SAT prep classes weren’t enough, my dad did sign us up for Princeton Review. While I was too tired to study some nights in college, my friend would be heading out to her second job. After giving away a toy at Toys for Tots, I went home to a Christmas tree full of presents. I could get a dabble of what life was like on the other side, but each time I still went home to my nice house in frickin Pleasantville. This guilt is still very pervasive today and is perhaps what influenced me to leave behind a pursuit of a career in film for one more fulfilling in college access. This same guilt follows me into one-sided discussions about undergraduate student loans with my friends. This guilt makes me shy away from mentioning my gap year in Australia in certain conversations. This guilt also makes me sometimes apprehensive about my work with low-income students who I fear will discredit me after discovering what my dad does for a living. These conversations and realizations aren’t lost on me; they weigh on me and often make me feel uncomfortable with my privilege.
On the other side of that coin of feeling uncomfortable with my socioeconomic privilege, I do find solace in having developed a strong racial salience that makes me alternatively comfortable with my blackness and being unapologetically black in, often times, very white environments. Yet, I’ve come to slyly notice this is an underdeveloped quality in some others. When you spend an entire childhood as the only black face in the classroom or at the slumber party, that isolation is palpable. A common coping mechanism is disassociation from what makes you “othered.” You want to be known as your friend’s friend, not your friend’s black friend. You also don’t want to be associated with black girl stereotypes like being loud or aggressive and thus, you wear your “oreo” pin with pride.
I took notice at my prep school with a handful of black students how there were those of us who joined the Black Cultural Association, and those who did not. In college, when my black friends and I were being questioned for our student ID cards when trying to enter a frat party, I watched curiously as another black girl was inside the party with her white friends having a grand ol’ time. In my head, I pictured her at a pre-game with her friends who rap the word “nigga” during songs. When someone took a picture without a flash and her dark skin didn’t allow her to show up in the photo, she laughed along with the group. When Mike Brown was shot and a grand jury failed to charge Darren Wilson with murder, the topic never came up among her friends during happy hour. Her friends “don’t” see her as black; they just see her as their friend. And, for the sake of their friendship, she does not remind them what separates her from them. In an effort to make everyone feel comfortable, she too puts on her colorblind lenses and never points out the racial elephant in the room.
But how does that colorblindness hold up in a racially charged 2017 with Facebook Live videos of unarmed black men being shot and the knowledge that 54% of white women voters voted for he-who-will-not-be-named? In 2015, embarking on my natural hair journey and having had my first black teacher ever in life finally teach me about Brown vs. Board of Education (aka basic American history often glazed over in school), I felt even more responsibility to challenge the bigots in my newsfeed comments and speak openly about white supremacy.
As I’ve watched many privileged black people walk on eggshells around white people out of fear of “bringing race into everything,” I wonder about W. E. B. Du Bois’s mission for the “Talented Tenth.” Are we faithfully using our social standings – as outliers in a society designed to keep black people oppressed – to promote social change and uplift our communities from oppression? While walking on eggshells is easy, don’t we have an obligation, similar to white liberals, to challenge the hearts and minds of both ignorant and prejudiced white people who are in positions of power and sitting in the cubicle next to us at work? Why do I feel this responsibility, while others do not?
Now that I’m older, I appreciate the balanced childhood my parents created – one where I had black friends and white friends, lived in the burbs but spent significant time in urban areas, recognized ways in which I was privileged and ways in which my race made others uncomfortable. And I’ve also come to recognize that most people aren’t actually raised with this balance. We’re often raised in segregated silos racially and socioeconomically. We form opinions about other races or people above or below our social class – opinions that aren’t usually rooted in any considerable exposure or contact to them. My parents consciously raised us with a balance because they had the foresight to know that once childhood ended, that innocence of kids playing with other kids for the sake of playing would end and the adult world would become a bit crueler and a bit more black and white.