In the fifth grade my mother, society dame that she is, decided that I should be a junior debutante in her sorority's cotillion. From January to June, I spent two weekends a month learning a dreadfully boring dance routine of the step together clap variety, set to John Lennon's "Imagine." Along with approximately fifteen other elementary school age girls from various schools around the Albany area, I prepared to twirl and prance for the delight of the community's finest. Practice would last for two hours or as long as our young attention spans could handle, then we would be released to play amongst ourselves as the debutantes practiced their dying swan courtsies under the critical eye of the drill sargeant choreographer. Play time was always when the drama started. Putting fifteen girls in one room and telling them to play nicely is like putting a guppy in a shark tank and telling them to sing "Under The Sea." It ain't gonna happen. Games of hide and seek, innocent at first, always devolved into shouting matches and insults hurled faster than a major league pitch. And what would always begin as an evenly matched fight, always evolved into a fourteen on one gang up. And without fail, the one would always be me. Because despite all of their differences, the other girls could always agree on one thing, I wasn't like them. My speech was a bit too proper and peppered with a few too many "awesomes" and "likes" and "totallys." My school had a name, not just a number. I listened to Bon Jovi instead of Slick Rick and couldn't quite do the Roger Rabbitt. So one afternoon, after a particularly heated confrontation the oldest girl in the bunch looked me in the eyes, pointed a finger in my face and said, "You ain't nothing but an Oreo." It wasn't an accusation, it was a verdict. My skin may be the color of mocha, but I was as white as the cookie's cream filled middle. In a desperate attempt to defend my blackness, I rattled off random facts about Garrett A. Morgan, Marcus Garvey, Josephine Baker, and any other significant figure in black history. Needless to say, I was less than convincing.
Even though my mom was born in Harlem, raised in the Bronx, and spent the majority of her career teaching in inner city schools, when it came to raising her own children, it was suburbs all the way baby! I grew up with green grass, trees, and quiet streets. The night sky was so clear the stars looked close enough to touch. Deer sometimes trekked through the woods behind my family's four bedroom, two and a half bathroom, two car garage home. I grew up in the bosom of suburbia surrounded by Beckys and Suzies and Mollys, not a Shaniqua, LaTonya, or Dawnisha in sight. Becky and Suzie played jump rope, not double dutch. Becky and Suzie had posters of Dylan McKay on their walls, not K-Ci and JoJo. Becky and Suzie watched Dance Party USA, not Soul Train. I was a quintessential product of my environment. My parents did their best to expose me to as much black culture as possible. They set up play dates with other black children, forced me and my brothers to enter the annual Black History Month Essay Contest (I won three times in a row), sent me to African dance class at a ghetto community center, and even joined Jack and Jill to widen our network of black friends. I grudgingly participated. I never felt comfortable around other black children, often being ostracized for the music I listened to and the ability to properly conjugate my verbs. The junior debutantes were a lot nicer about it than the girl who pushed me on the sidewalk and mashed my face into the dirt. I may not have looked like Becky and Suzie, but I was most at ease in their presence. With them, I didn't have to try to talk differently or be someone I wasn't. It wasn't that I didn't realize that I was black. From an early age, I knew that my hair didn't blow in the wind and my skin didn't turn red and peel on a blistering July day. Plus, there was always some obnoxious kid in my class to call me Cocoa Puff or Tar Baby, in case I forgot that I was many shades darker than everyone else. But, my personality and interests always fit better in the lily white suburbs than they did in any urban setting.
As I got older, things slowly changed. In junior high school, all of the black students peppered throughout the district converged in one building. Instead of being the only, I was now one of thirty, which was an exponential increase. I built tentative friendships and added some color to the mix. I was introduced to the beauty of Yo MTV raps and Cross Colors clothing. I may not have been able to use "wack" in a sentence, but I knew all the words to "Ain't Nothing But G Thang." Scarred from prior experience, I was still hesitant when meeting other black teenagers, but for the first time I felt like one of them.
By the time I reached high school, my friends were an even mix. I spent just as much time with the AquaNet Addict (white girl) as I did with Stumpy (black girl). The objects of my affection were equally diverse ranging from a Kurt Cobain (I really loved him) look alike to a Larenz Tate knock off. Gradually, the scales began to tip and by 12th grade I was gravitating towards all things black. The ease with which I once related to white people shifted, and I found myself more at ease roaming city streets than I was walking through the halls of my school. I craved contact with people who looked like me. Bit by bit, the creamy white filling in the Oreo was vanishing. And I did whatever it took to downplay the little that remained. On three way phone call hook ups, Jailbait would tell disbelieving guys, "Liz is definitely black. She only sounds white." I did my best to back up her claims.
When it was time to go to college, I made the choice to continue my foray into blackness and applied to the Ujamaa Residential College, basically the black dorm. I thought the transition was complete, until I called my soon to be roommate and had to inform her that I was indeed black. Under the watchful tutelage of Chesty LaRue and our suitemates, I learned how to wrap my hair, bought my first bubble coat, got acclimated to the South Bronx, and perfected a believeable black-cent. I was a far cry from my suburban beginnings and loving it. I consciously carved out a distinctly black existence for myself. I pledged a black sorority and moved within black social circles. After growing up in a predominantly white enviroment, I no longer felt as though I could relate to Becky and Suzie in any way, shape, or form.
One of my biggest issues with moving to Grand Rapids was the lack of diversity (i.e. black folks). I assumed that without a sizeable black population, I couldn't find friends, a hairdresser, and a decent place to hang out. Somewhere along the way, I forgot where I was from. I'm the girl who watched Kids Inc. every Saturday and thought Madonna hung the moon. Zack Slater was the love of my life at one point, until Luke Perry took his place. I pinch rolled my jeans and thought Beverly Hills 90210 was totally awesome. It's like there are two sides of me and until now, I never thought they could meet. It was either/or, never both. But now I'm starting to wonder why. Contrary to what I've told myself, I still have a lot in common with Becky and Suzie. Just as much as I do with Shaniquah and Dawnisha. For the first time in years there are white people in my life who are more than classmates and coworkers. They are friends and confidantes. I'm once again cool with being the only black chick in the crowd and blasting The Dixie Chicks from my car's speakers. Because of where I grew up, I can navigate through two worlds that rarely ever meet. I've finally learned that I can still be a black woman through and through, even with all of my white girl tendencies.