My Memories of Traveling While Black
As a child, we had very interesting travel arrangements. In the 1970s and 80s our family—from mixed race parents—would travel separately at times. We either went down South to visit my father's side of the family in New Orleans, or we drove up North to South Dakota to visit my mother's family. There were summers where my older sister and I would drive the 13 hours from Chicago with our father and stay with his sister for what seemed to be an eternity. Having grown up in a diverse area of Chicago made our visits there seem pointed. We noticed how differently we were treated and how much more comfortable our dad was while home.
Conversely, when we stayed with my grandmother in Lemmon, South Dakota it felt very much like another world altogether. Gramma was a school secretary who also cooked meals for the parish at her Catholic church, and she remained good friends with the priests and nuns throughout her life until she died a few years ago. We had cousins on both sides who didn't seem to notice when the local children asked us how we got so tan so fast in the summer while up North. Visiting New Orleans was another issue since many more people looked like us there. Still, the sense of color privilege has been something with which I've had to deal my entire life.
Once, while in college, I started figuring out the networking situation that many students seemed to already understand. I applied for a job with the Admissions office through their student work program and gave tours to visiting high school students who were interested in the university. There was a particular moment for me that defined my ability to speak up when someone else brought up my light-skinned privilege, though I never saw what they saw in me until that moment.
While walking through campus and pointing out buildings to the high schools who all came from a city school in Chicago (where I had grown up), I overheard two girls whispering about me. It went on for some time and I felt caught in the middle of two places: being a professional with a job to do who was trying to make my own life different by earning a degree and being a mixed girl who identified as Black.
"She think she better than me with them light eyes and good hair."
It wasn't the first time I heard that. If ever I was in a physical fight as a girl, this was hurled toward me with much venom. No girl I ever punched back understood that I, too, was caught up in the perceived beauty of women and that no matter how hard I tried I could not get my hair to "feather" nor could I pull off the same frosted pink lipstick of the blonde, White models in all the magazines. I couldn't swing my head back and forth to produce hair that "moved" like they did in the shampoo commercials.
But girls, I had come to understand, were always in competition with one another. I just didn't understand the game as well as others. As much as they didn't like my looks I didn't like them, either.
It went on like that if I tried using Standard English to speak while explaining what college life was like. The irony was how much I actually didn't know what college life was like. I never lived in a dorm or pledged a sorority, nor did I go out and party on Quarter Beer night as much as my contemporaries. My life was connecting with other single moms and sharing food at potlucks to stretch the food budget. My life was finding babysitters so I could not only attend class but also find time to study and research at the library.
After walking the length of the campus and realizing that the adult chaperone from the group didn't hear the same things I was listening to as the girls continued to suggest my uppityness, I stopped the tour and turned around toward the girls. Except, this time, the chaperone was nearby and heard my response to them.