My former boss cornered me in my cubical, looked into my eyes and asked me what I preferred to be called. She is a tall, lanky, pretty white woman whose hair curls in the southern humidity. I hesitated before responding to her question. My childhood facial expressions told on me, moments later when I still hadn’t responded. “Called?” I said. My frown lines deepened in-between my un-plucked naturally shaped brows.
Bashful but determined she whispered in my ear “Black” or “African American?” I could tell that she had summoned up the courage to ask me this very important question. I couldn’t bear to see her sweat any longer and replied, “Either is fine, just don’t call me a Negro.” I flashed my right dimple and smiled. Unexpectedly, she became stiff; while I became confused. “I’m just kidding,” I said and calmed her nervousness. She exhaled from relief.
She was undoubtedly nervous, but in retrospect also brave. Many times people are too afraid to ask questions regarding the touchy subject of “race.” Little did she know that her question lifted the veil of pain from my childhood from being called the wrong name.
Everyone remembers the first time that they were discriminated against. Whether it was because of your race, sex, class, or sexual orientation. My first encounter with racism was when I was five years old at a magical theme park in Anaheim, CA. While crossing the juggle gym, I encountered another child head-on. He was about my age, white, with red freckles and matching hair. Unable to get around me he yelled in my face with an evil snarl, “Move Nigger.” We both knew the history of that word’s pain. I grasped onto the net and held on tightly trying not to brush his shoulder as he crawled pass me. I wanted to defend myself, but was left speechless.
I am a daughter of a former field worker. My mom picked cotton just 45 minutes outside of Atlanta in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. My straightened hair, shaved legs and Master’s degree fool people about my roots. My hardships are no where like my moms and my memories of childhood segregation are not the depictions of “Black” and “White” drinking fountains and bathrooms. However, it is the feeling of subtle and invisible racism that plagues my past.
Being called out of your name at a young age is unbelievably painful and memorable. Truthfully, the terms African American and Black are so interchangeable that most Blacks won’t be offended which term you used to describe them. As long as you don’t refer to them as a Negro or God forbid the N-word.
Children talk about race and the color of their pigmentation, as they hold their arms up to one another’s in comparison. My son will know what’s in a name, in the history and meaning of terms used to describe his ethnicity. He will also have the wisdom, like his mother to educate those that are fearful to ask the questions about race.
Originally published 2/19/2010.