|Me with my mother (far left), two sisters and our dog, Bab|
During my grade school years, I attended a Catholic school where my mother was the volunteer nurse. It wasn’t until my 5th grade year that I started to discover I was different, the year I realized my mother was White. As funny as that sounds, it's true. Growing up I looked like everyone else on our block and the majority of my classmates looked like me. To paint a better picture, race was never discussed in our household, so I did not know or see “color”. The first time I noticed a difference, my mother was the volunteer nurse at school that day. At that time, the students received onsite physicals and shots. I remember getting closer to the front of the line; I started to feel a little embarrassed. I don’t know if my embarrassment was because my mother was the school nurse or because she was White, but we never discussed it.
In 1974, my sisters and I wanted to attend the local public school. We were tired of the strict rules - sisters measuring our skirts to ensure they were below the knee and the constant rulers to the knuckles and knees. My mother agreed that year to take us out of the Catholic school system and put us in public schools. I was so excited. As a child, I felt I could explore what the rest of the world was experiencing - little did I know this would be an eye-opening experience for me.
My first day at Bret Harte Jr. High was so different than the Catholic school I had attended for the last six years. The school was surrounded by a barbed wire fence, graffiti walls, and locks on most of the exit doors leading to the outside. The yards were covered in dried grass and there was a small area of black asphalt that looked like it had not been repaved in years. The biggest change, ALL the students and teachers were Black.
Wanting to fit in to this new environment, I started acting differently. I cut my hair so I could grow a natural. I tried to dress like all the other kids. I even tried using “slang.” Needless to say, none of it worked. My mother noticed a change in me right away. She started calling me her “Black child.” I didn’t let her down; I would rise to the occasion every time. I was proud of my newfound assessment of myself and wanted to learn more.
A few weeks had passed, and I made a few friends. My sister and I were walking home and we noticed six girls behind us. Little did we know, we were being followed. We were stopped by one of the girls, who immediately identified herself as Peculator, the leader of a local gang, better known as the Crips. We were harassed and my sister was hit and thrown to the ground. They said they were coming after me next. I will never forget that moment. I couldn’t figure out why we were being “jumped” or why people didn’t like us. My sister and I have never talked about it. A few more weeks passed and I was told by one of my classmates that I was going to be jumped after school. Again, I was asking, “Why am I being targeted?” A young lady by the name of Stacy came to my rescue. I didn’t know her very well, but she protected me from the wrath I was facing after school. To this day, I owe her my thanks.
Several months had passed and I was getting acclimated to my new school. I was scheduled to go on a field trip that day to Big Bear. During the ride on the bus, one of the girls stood up and stated, “Who wants to throw snowballs at the white boys?” She went down the aisle and abruptly stopped at me and stated, “Not you because you wouldn’t know what that means.” I was extremely hurt and confused. I didn’t know what she meant, but later I was told I was called names like “Snow White," "half-breed," etc. This is when I realized that the other kids did not identify with me. This is also the first time I experienced prejudice. Up until this point, I had identified with “my people” – Black people.
As the school year went on, I became friends with a girl named Brenda. Brenda and I couldn’t have been more different. She was outgoing, tall, beautiful, and confident-- or so I thought. Brenda approached me one day and stated, “I can’t believe you are my best friend. You are light skinned and I am dark skinned.” I was perplexed by her comment. Brenda proceeded to educate me on the conflict between “light skinned" and "dark skinned” girls. I didn’t understand because we were not exposed to racial issues at home. Brenda and I would continue to have enlightening conversations regarding the inner racial conflicts amongst Blacks.
As I got older, I identified with the conversations Brenda and I had in junior high school. It saddened me to know that I was judged by the color of my skin by my own Brothers and Sisters. Movies like Roots and School Daze depicted the conflicts amongst Blacks– conflicts I saw play out every day in my high school. Growing up multi-racial in the 70s, at the height of the Black power movement, created a unique set of circumstances for my sisters and I. When I had children of my own, I vowed that they would understand race, color discrimination, and the possible barriers they may face.
My experiences with Blackness have been both rich and difficult. Being mixed-race and feeling isolated because my mom looked different from the other moms felt easy compared to being one of few half White kids at an all Black high school. I now recognize that the way people behaved reflected the political and social moments, but still, straddling the line of Black and White at that time was no easy feat.
Janice Spencer, a mother of three, works as a HBPC Nurse for the Department of Veteran Affairs in Louisville, KY where she lives with her husband and two dogs