Recently I read Real American, the new memoir written by Julie Lythcott-Haims about her life growing up as the child of an African American father and a white mother. Her book demonstrates that even in the midst of a socioeconomically privileged childhood that she still was not sheltered from the scourge of racism. Her book is painfully honest as her awareness grows that she doesn’t fit into any of the prescribed racial categories, and is viewed as ‘other.’
In one particularly poignant essay, she describes how she felt when on her birthday during her senior year at a predominantly white high school in Wisconsin, she found her festively decorated locker defaced by the ‘n’ word written three times, albeit misspelled. Easy to imagine the stark pain she felt when on what should have been a happy day, she was confronted with the ugliness of prejudice. Her presence of mind handling this event is a testimony to the strength of her developing character, which would continue to hold her in good stead as her life progressed.
Julie’s essay got me wondering how I would respond if I were ever called a racial slur. I almost feel embarrassed to admit that I have no memories of this ever happening to me. Not that I haven’t heard the ‘n’ word used by whites; just that the slur has not been directed at me.
My earliest and most vivid memory of hearing the ‘n’ word happened when I was around twelve years old. I loved to ice skate and was thrilled when my parents agreed to allow me to take lessons at the Michael Kirby Studio and Ice Rink on 75th and Loomis in Chicago. After one class, while the students were gathered in the locker room removing their ice-skates, one girl starts describing to a small group what she had seen happen the previous day between some ‘n’s and ‘d’s – (pejorative word for Italians). She was so into her story that she didn’t notice how many of the other students began to withdraw from her conversation and leave the locker room, many casting furtive glances my way.
I didn’t confront the girl after hearing the slur, but did tell my mother what happened. To my surprise, once my mother ascertained that the girl was not talking about me, she simply shrugged her shoulders and told me that she wasn’t surprised this had occurred given the neighborhood in which the ice rink was located. She further told me that among some white ethnics, particularly poorer ones, that not only were they prejudiced against blacks, but also prejudiced against each other. One of the first lessons I learned about prejudice and racism.
The following week when I returned to my skating class, the girl who had used the racial slur stopped me afterwards and asked if she could ask me something. I said, ‘Sure’ – even as I was somewhat braced for what I thought her question would be. Sure enough, she said, “Cheryl, is it true you are part colored?” I told her, ‘Yes – but really the right word is Negro; we don’t say colored anymore.’ She responded, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’ She then invited me to get a snack with her from the concession stand while we waited to be picked up. I said ‘Ok’ and we continued to talk while we ate and waited for our rides home. In the subsequent weeks she continued to try and befriend me. While we never became friends, at least we were friendly enough when we did run into each other at the ice rink.
Experiencing the sting of white American prejudice and racism as a young person has lasting consequences. No matter what other events occur later in life, you remember those early situations where you felt ‘less than’ or uncomfortable. Julie Lycott-Haims eloquently captures her lifelong memories when she writes, “I’m so American it hurts.” She’s right about that.