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.
"I don't think I'm better than you. I have as much trouble with my hair as any girl. My White mother didn't know what to do with it and these eyes? I don't think that they do anything to MAKE me a better person."
The chaperone, a Black woman, scanned the faces of the two girls, as well as mine, to get a handle of the situation. She breathed in deeply through her nose and closed her eyes. I'm sure she considered that traveling with Black students down to the country some 200 miles south of home was going to be an issue. I just don't think she thought that this would be the issue.
She said nothing and let my comment ride it out. The girls, only a few years younger than I at the time, looked embarrassed that I said something. Not that I heard them. That was done on purpose. I was meant to hear it. But I wasn't meant to respond.
Traveling down South gave me plenty of opportunity to hear those exact words from Black girls darker than I. They told me I could pass the Paper Bag test, a colorism issue for many Black folks, and they teased me for it.
Though the brown paper bag test is antiquated and frowned upon as a shameful moment in African-American history, the ideals behind the practice still lingers in the African-American community. Modern-day colorism rears its ugly head in the day to day lives of Black Americans every day. - Rivea Ruff
It would be the number one reason my sister and I would ever fight anyone and, believe me, girls went straight for my scalp to pull out my hair when that happened. We didn't tell our parents about every incident because we thought we'd be in trouble for it. It wasn't until Spike Lee's 1988 movie School Daze that I realized just how big an issue of colorism this was. That became even more clear after reading Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye while I was in college.
It is why, even as light as I am, that I cannot wake up one day and forget about color. If I turned too brown in the summer months I was accused of "trying to be Black" or when the winter months of paleness got me teased in the other direction. "You are so White." or worse, "You're high yella."
On our way down South we took sandwiches so we wouldn't have to stop. On more than one occasion, my father would have to assess a situation before we stopped to ensure that we wouldn't be harassed for being with him. By the time the sun got to us at the end of the summer, we looked more like we "belonged" with him and didn't get asked by strangers if we were supposed to be with him. There was freedom in our trips back home to Chicago and the nuance of that was lost on me as a child. Sure, it was exciting to finally be going home, but the freedom of the ride? I didn't understand that as a child.
The implication that our father kidnapped us was a constant reminder that this nation didn't recognize us as a family. Moreso this was an issue with me and not my sister who is darker with brown eyes. When it did happen, though, it only ever came from White adults, mostly women whose children were nearby.
I recall that both of my parents were questioned by friends or family about their intentions of raising us. What I didn't comprehend was the true meaning behind this question. "Are you raising them as Black or White?" was what they didn't say, but it was there. Both gave varied answers that ranged from "We're raising them as children in our family" to the pointed "We're raising them the way the world will see them: as Black."
Which is how it worked out even visiting our Northern relatives on farms throughout Minnesota, Iowa, and the Dakotas. If I jumped in the pool and my hair magically changed texture I was forced to answer questions about it. Why it does that and what I can make it do and how come it looks so nappy.
All of this is why I see color in everything, good or bad. I'll take the accusations now because this shaped me and the space I occupy. It's why when, recently, a distant relative on The Cuban's side of the family, someone told a story about accidentally buying one of Hallmark's Mahogany cards. He was telling the story as if it were some joke because HA HA I BOUGHT A BLACK CARD FOR A WHITE PERSON and everyone, including The Cuban's parents, were immediatly uncomfortable and shifted in their seats because why was he telling this story in front of me?
I looked over at The Cuban who was instantly pissed and ready to fire back about the inappropriateness of the story but, having traveled this road before with clueless people, decided to shoot back, "That's nothing. I buy cards with White people on them ALL THE TIME."
It's a space with a long road stretched out in front of me, but I walk it. I teach, whether by sarcasm or true and serious concern, that this space is mine and that it's defined by me and not someone's perception of me. I travel while Black no matter how short the distance.