A Minority's Memoirs
Seeking Answers to Questions of Friendship, Racism, and Identity
My friend and I developed a close relationship from kindergarten until we graduated high school. We pretty much stuck together through thick and thin. However, we did not necessarily have the greatest start. In fact, we were enemies before we were friends. Since we were never able to reach a point where we could talk about this issue, it later created a disconnect for us, and left me with unanswered questions even now at age 23.
I grew up in a predominantly white school, and until about the fifth grade, I was the only black student in my entire class. Overall, I did not feel out of place coming into the school system. I attended a preschool the previous year where my class was predominantly white, and the kids there never made me feel I didn't fit in. So, I was already used to interacting and getting along with others who were different than me.
Being so young and carefree, the only thing I was concerned about was making friends, and not judging who I wanted in my inner circle based on the color of their skin. However, two white girls in my kindergarten class didn't feel the same way.
It will never justify their actions, but I pretty much stood out like a sore thumb being the only black kid and shortest in my class. The girls used to push me down, pull my hair, steal my backpack and rip up my homework. I never understood it. I was always nice, I always minded my own business, and we barely even spoke to one another. After putting up with their shenanigans for so long I finally decided that enough was enough.
It was time for us to get ready to go home and the girls waited until I was alone in the coat room before striking again. The girls threw down my backpack and ripped up my homework. I got so angry I fought back. I pushed one of them and they pushed back. I pushed even harder and they pushed me with such force I fell back into the coatracks. Then one of them called me a name (I don't remember what, but it wasn't very nice) and they both took off together. I was crying, not so much because I was hurt physically, but emotionally I was. I couldn't understand why I was being picked on when I never even did anything to them.
I told my mother about it as soon as I got home. Of course, she was ready to go to the school to have a talk with the parents, teacher, and principal. However, I knew she going to go hard for me because she loves me, and she even suspected the issue might have something to do with race. So in order to calm her down, I promised her I would talk to the teacher about it the next day, which I did.
The teacher spoke to the girls privately, and whatever she said it seemed to diffuse the situation. I just never got an explanation for their behavior, but at the time I let it go. Everything seemed cool after that. One of the girls even became one of my closest friends. After we made up we seemed inseparable until the end of high school.
I still dealt with the struggles of being teased and picked on during my elementary years. My friend even laughed at the nickname "Tia" that my family gave me because it was a shorter version of "Tatiana" and my younger cousins couldn't pronounce my real name just yet. My family thought it was pretty, but she said it was weird and dumb to call me something like that and she preferred to give me a nickname that sounded "better" to her. It hurt because I actually liked my family nickname, but I didn't want to cause drama. So, as long as it wasn't something crazy I was open to it. She started calling me "Tat" because I was small like a "tatertot." I didn't mind it, but I still couldn't help feeling somewhat rejected.
Don't get me wrong, in most cases, she was a good friend. She would come to my birthday parties, she would be there for me if I needed someone to talk to, she would encourage me to go after my dreams when I was too scared to take the first step, and she would always invite me into her home. Yet, whenever I invited her to hang out at my place she would always say it was too far away. I lived about 25-30 minutes out, but I had no problem traveling that far for her. After all, she was supposed to be one of my closest friends. I always wondered if she felt comfortable being around my family because the fact that she was never willing to do the same for me made me begin to question the friendship.
At one point during freshmen year of high school, we somewhat drifted apart. I mostly went my own separate way because I felt I stuck with her for so long I wanted to gain a sense of who I was without her. Some part of me knew I needed to walk away, even if for a little while, just to see what it was like as an individual. Being alone wasn't easy and I found it difficult to function. I had gotten so used to being apart of that group. I started to realize I allowed myself to become assimilated into whatever culture was considered "appropriate" to my friends and it became normal for me to hide or put aside a part of my black culture. So, the more I hung around a diverse group of people the more comfortable I began to feel. Yet, I began to miss her after awhile and I found myself back in her group of friends.
Senior year was when I finally gathered enough courage to start asking some of the questions that have been rolling around in my head. I brought up the bullying situation to her a few of times, and each time she told me she could never remember any of it. It didn't make any sense to me. How could someone simply not recall something like that? Especially since that situation led to us becoming friends in the first place. I wasn't lying. She knew me well enough that I would have no good reason for making up a story like that. However, I also remembered she was someone who didn't like confrontation. Perhaps she didn't want to remember and hoped I might let it go.
I realized the likelihood of me getting an answer was very slim, but my instincts told me a truth was being hidden from me. I couldn't help asking myself, "Was I a target because of the color of my skin? Was the reason she didn't want to remember was because she didn't want to admit to herself that at one point in time she might have actually been prejudiced towards me? Why me of all people?" To say it was just because I was so small, shy, and quiet wasn't a good enough excuse. We were in kindergarten. We were all pretty small, and several of us were shy and quiet. They never targeted anyone else. It was always me. Plus, it is impossible to deny that the one thing that made me stand out, more than anything else was the color of my skin.
In high school, I witnessed a lot, from the number of black students attending dramatically increasing, to the first African American President of the United States being sworn into office. During those years I noticed racism becoming more present in my own life, even in our school. Right after the election, I overheard many white students blaming blacks for their unhappiness, making comments like, "If it wasn't for the blacks we wouldn't be in this mess," or "They were so dumb they only voted for him because he's black."
I couldn't tell you how awkward I would feel being the only black person in a group of white friends and listening to them always speak so negatively about a president I was so fond and proud of, not just due to the color of his skin, but because of his character and what he stood for. My friend was silent during most of this, but her silence said a lot. Even though part of her kept quiet out of respect for my feelings, I knew we didn't agree on the outcome. This wasn't the main reason we grew apart, but it definitely played a big role.
I didn't realize how deeply all of this affected me until years later. Growing up in an environment where I had been picked on by a few of my peers, including someone I had allowed myself to become so close to, because of my name, my body, and my culture made it difficult for me to accept myself. I had basically let peer pressure and longing to hold onto these friends cause me to hide a huge part of who I was. I felt I could never express my authentic blackness and be accepted for me without feeling I might be put down for it.
Today, my friend and I really don't speak much anymore. We never had a falling out or a beef. We just naturally grew apart, and I'm actually somewhat thankful for it. Four years of college has blessed me with a diverse group of friends who love and accept me for who I truly am, and encourage me to continue being a better version of MYSELF: a confident, intelligent, and unapologetic black woman. I no longer felt I had to put on a reserve for my white friends and I could freely express every part of me. Anyone who didn't like it was the one with the problem, not me.
When we were friends, I believe she truly loved me as best as she could, but we never felt truly comfortable in the friendship. The foundation we built our friendship on was off because we both kept hiding things from one another. However, I do wonder what could've happened if we had an open conversation about why she bullied me in the first place. I believe it would've done some healing for the both of us, and might have made our friendship healthier. Or we might have made a healthy decision to walk away from the friendship altogether. Maybe it would've made me brave enough to stand up for what I liked and what I believed in. Funny thing is, I still seemed to have healed from it now without any conversation with her at all. So, maybe it wasn't even necessary for me. I learned that any friendship where you do not feel comfortable living your truth shamelessly with that person is not a true friendship at all. It seems you don't always need others to answer your questions. Some questions you may not need to be answered, period. Sometimes you'll find the answers you need all on your own.