It happened around 1988, not long after Harvey Gantt became America’s first New South “post-race” mayor. My mother, resolving to escape the ramp-up to the impending crack wars, moved us away from the borough of Queens, New York and into the Queen City of Charlotte, North Carolina. That’s when I overheard a white boy call me halfbreed in my twelfth grade Spanish class.
It was a boy that I’d never had problems with before and it caught me off guard. I overheard him talking to another of the good ol’ boys when he referred to me in third person as “that halfbreed gal.” Those were his words, to be exact. I was confused and next hurt. I excelled in languages and the social sciences even back then, which is why his old-fashioned verbiage sounded strange and hostile to me.
My ears perked. “Breed?” I thought, “that’s what they do to animals!”
The categorization implied by his drawl cut to the quick. His enunciation resonated in a place that I was unable to locate. Finally, I was outraged. In my adolescent mind it would have been better had he simply called me “nigger.”
His drawling pronunciation of girl struck me as peculiar and the words that formed a compound had really hit me hard. The one-two of his white maleness bespoke a harsh admonishment. Combined into a single swipe, he cut me down in the most personal terms by figuratively connecting the stuff between my legs to what happens between my ears.
His offending blow reached beyond his Whiteness to strike at the deepest core of my Blackness. It was the cavalier, offhandedness. Not only was he white, but he was male; not only was I black, but also a girl.
After dismissal from Spanish, I found myself trailing behind him to his next class period, loudly demanding he explain himself. I was determined not to be ignored and, once outside, in utter frustration and within full view of teachers and everybody in third period lunch, I got his attention. Hurling an empty can of Welch’s grape soda, I yelled, with the utmost attitude,
“Excuse you, but I’m black on both sides!”
Aluminum pinging off his head forced him to acknowledge me.
He laughed nervously.
Realizing he was at the center of an ugly scene, he took back his words and apologized before scurrying off to class with his buddies. He decided, wiselythat a public altercation with the weird black girl from New York, wouldn’t be earning him any cool points, plus he probably thought I was about to whup his ass.
I don’t quite remember what else I said that day. I’m sure it was a lot. Whatever I said must’ve been articulated well enough to escape suspension and avoid my mom getting called into the principal’s office over my foolishness on a workday. That would’ve be a definite no-go! Thankfully, I checked my behavior in the immediate aftermath and quickly remindes myself to keep my hands—and projectile objects—to myself.
I made peace. A year later, in fact, the same boy who made the offending remark was assigned as my lab partner in Biology class. We managed to get along okay and were even somewhat friendly, but I never forgot what he said. Apparently, neither did he. My reaction made a memorable enough impression to have taught him to behave himself in my presence from then on… at least not if I was in earshot.
Looking back, I can guess this young man was probably a bit jealous of me. My academic abilities earned high marks with comparatively little effort. I must have seemed annoyingly anomalous according to his more familiar context. Perhaps it was his only way to express the disjunction he perceived about my book smarts. As a working-class white having only attended North Carolina public schools his whole life, how could he have known any better? How else was he to interpret the obvious cultural advantage I leveraged? As a Southerner and a white male, he’d more than likely internalized a belief in prevailing assumptions about racist presuppositions alleging the inferiority of black intelligence.
I was lucky. Northern school bussing afforded me the opportunity to enjoy certain regional advantages relative to my native Southern classmates, both black and white. The edge created by New York City politics enabled my mother to enroll my twin sister and me in a couple of Little Neck-Douglaston’s best elementary and junior high schools. As a top district for education, the schools I attended were well renowned for producing the highest scores in the city on state regents exams. The good fortune of our social circumstances allowed me to squeeze my way into excellent schools and make the most out of an unfair situation. My primary and early secondary schooling was flanked by the best teachers, many of whom were first, second, and third-generation Jewish residents of adjacent Long Island communities in Nassau County. No doubt due in part to their own experiences with the Holocaust, many of my teachers nurtured a strong commitment to liberal principles by enacting critical democracy in public education on every level. It was a mission they took seriously.
Our classroom lessons were enhanced by weekly outings to the world’s finest cultural institutions. Visits to the Museum of Modern Art, American Museum of Natural History, the Bronx Zoo, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York Stock Exchange, and the like were par for the course. Additionally, my teachers had the flexibility to let us have 30 to 40-minute stretches of free time. They understood the soothing effect it had on their more rambunctious students. A break from the rigmarole of everyday class work allowed us to daydream by the window or bookcase and afforded me the freedom to slowly leaf through encyclopedias and unabridged dictionaries at leisure. For kids like me, it created just enough space to calm down before the stress of a 2-hour commute back home to my Southside neighborhood and granted teachers the luxury to focus proper attention on the creation and design of lesson plans so students might receive real practice in the art of learning.
I was often perplexed upon thinking back to how I reacted that day almost 30 years ago. I mean, really? I don’t even like “purple drink” for cryin out loud! For the life of me, I couldn’t fully grasp exactly why his words stung to elicit such rage. In addition to the discomfort of having some boy talkin’ up under my clothes like that, I can now understand my response better. The enormity of my outrage had as much to do with the personal and institutional attitudes that conspired to expose and set loose my innermost insecurities. Acceptance from my black peer group was something I desperately sought and it was exactly this kind of event that highlighted the problem. Not only was I afraid the black kids would think I was “acting white” because of my grades, I was equally uncomfortable with being viewed as what I was: the green-eyed, light-skinned chick with a funny-sounding accent.
Meanwhile, educational tracking policies were finding new adherents among its constituency of frustrated white parents. While the buildings on school campuses were integrated, the college preparatory courses I took were invariably segregated. A noticeable absence of color, save one or two others, was the order of the day. I was proud to be considered “smart,” but I resented the wedge it created between me and my darker-skinned cohorts. Although I was on the debate team, belonged to Future Business Leaders of America, participated in the History & Political Science club, and received a scholarship to take part in a weeklong program sponsored by the Close-Up Foundation in Washington, DC to study the inner workings of the federal government, I was only tangentially aware of the NAACP’s efforts to stop the Supreme Court’s eventual decision to overturn school bussing by way of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education only a few years later. Few of us could know at that time about theories concerning a “racial bell curve” suggesting the inherent intellectual inferiority of blacks. Charles Murray and his ilk were only beginning to wreak their trajectory of havoc as white supremacist notions of education were making a comeback and once again enjoying political currency across the country. Fortunately for me too, my violent reply to the sexually charged slur occurred a decade preceding the current spate of racially discriminatory “zero tolerance” policies in American public schools.
The implicit assertion of his racial remark was about how I potentially look in the eyes of many whites. Embedded in his put-down was innuendo about my humanity and the social value placed on me due to my skin, based largely on the unconscious view that if not for some strain of European heritage I too would be deemed uneducable—as though being bright is naturally derived from being light. White perceptions about the visuality and intelligence of race wield tremendous damage on countless lives. More painful, is the way words such as “halfbreed” speak to another sad truth: the inescapable fact that I’ve been at times the unwitting beneficiary of this destructive form of racial bias. Crystallized in that moment is the agonizing reality I’m forced to accept. I am the recipient of unwanted light-skinned privilege at least so far as the white masculinist gaze is concerned. I work to balance the scales without appearing to overcompensate. I’d like to think I’m over it, but I know I’m not. I still feel some kind of way about the racial logic that posits Blackness and intelligence as mutually exclusive. The impact of events like these on my personal and professional journey over the decades cannot be underestimated, nor should they be.
Our histrionics are our history. The fallout surrounding colorism, racial discrimination, and Whiteness has become the prevailing subject of my life’s work. They inspire within me the need to heal myself and others from the wounds of racism and help frame smarter, more constructive conversations. Rhetorical race studies chose my body as a discourse, and not the other way around. It’s an all too necessary vocation. I wish this was not the case, but so it is.