[Photo by Amelia Williams]
On November 12, 2016, Saturday Night Live was hosted by Dave Chappelle. Infamously known for his disappearing act following his exit from his self-titled show, this was going to be one of the first times a large audience would be watching him perform. The opening monologue, which touched on the President elect, was poignant, inclusive and was delivered with the exact eloquence we needed.
One of the first skits was a perfect summation of my life. The skit starred Dave Chappelle and his close confidant, Chris Rock. The scene was set in a small apartment living room on Election Day, November 2016. Surrounding Chappelle and Rock were a group of their Caucasian democratic friends. As the numbers came in and each state turned red, their friends were shown to be utterly shocked and dismayed by the results. Yet in the front view of the scene you see the less than surprised Chappelle and Rock, shaking their heads up and down. They were not in the same amount of disbelief that their friends were. How come? Because they are Black.
I was born in Atlanta, GA to my mother Lynn, an Italian, Danish and primarily Norwegian woman, and my father, John, an African American man. I’m not exactly sure how long we were there for, but by 3 years old I was living in New York. There, I grew up with my mom and stepfather. We grew up on a nice amount of property, in the back woods of Cortlandt Manor. The house was small; up until the age of 14 we only had 1 bedroom, so my parents were in the dining room and sacrificed their privacy for mine. It was hard, but I consider myself lucky. I was spoiled in regards to what they had, and they loved me unconditionally. Not to say it was some Brady-inspired atmosphere; there were many dark days. But overall I feel pride in what I gained from my upbringing.
I went to Hen Hud, as any real alumni would call it. My close friends there didn’t really ever discuss race in a negative way (Operative words being: close friends), but it was definitely a bigoted environment. I didn't really notice how bad it was at the time. I made the assumption that the uncomfortable moments where I heard the word nigger, or my cheer squad was escorted by security after basketball games in the predominately black schools, were just isolated experiences.
My first boyfriend in High School was Pakistani and practiced the Muslim religion. I thought nothing of it. He was strikingly handsome, very intelligent and incredibly brooding. Nothing negative ever crossed my mind in regards to his background, even in the wake of 9/11, which I hate to even bring up in the same paragraph in talking about him. But this was the reality at the time. The media was insistent on fueling our minds with poison. They wanted us to hate anyone that “looked like” the terrorists from that day. They pinned America against tan skinned people, or anyone donning a hijab, saree or anything that represented the Islamic culture. It was atrocious. It was ignorant. It horrified me.
I naively didn’t realize the pain he may have felt at that time. I barely realized the pain I felt. It was a confusing time of mixed emotions and hormones, so everything felt overwhelming. I had always felt like an outsider, but because I never had anything overly offensive barked directly at me, I didn't know at the time what was forming an invisible barrier between me and all of my white friends.
In 2004 I moved to Providence, Rhode Island to study at Johnson and Wales University. My freshman year was like any other. I was naturally a very shy person at this time in my life, so everything was scary. I felt out of place, even after making friends, I never felt like I belonged. At the time, I couldn’t pinpoint what exactly it was, but recently, as my therapist and I researched my memories, a popular theme arose: racism.
The first “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore” moment happened at the beginning of my freshman year. One day a close friend of mine came back to the dorm frustrated and enraged.
“What happened?” I asked.
“The people at Dunkin Donuts gave me the wrong change!” she yelled in frustration.
“Really? How’d that happen?”
“I don’t know. It was all Black and Hispanic people working there, they’re just fucking stupid.”
I sat there pondering how to respond and instead changed the subject. I was so caught off guard by this statement, I didn’t know where to begin. My first thought: I am half black. So for her to say that to my face was astonishing. My following thoughts: Did she know I was black? And if she didn’t think I was half Black, didn't she assume I’m of Latin descent? The entire experience was baffling. But it was just the start of the year, and I felt I was in no position to write off friends. I naively decided to give her the benefit of the doubt and moved forward with an open mind.
My Sophomore year I ended up joining a sorority. Looking back, Greek Life is something I am ashamed to have ever been a part of. But at my college, if you weren’t in Greek Life, there wasn’t much else going on.
I pledged, I hazed, I partied. The guy who would become my boyfriend for the next few years was in a fraternity. I was fully engulfed in this world that is segregated in a way words cannot even define. I was the only person of color in my sorority while I was there. There were a few more girls, I believe when I was a senior, that joined, but overall, it was 99.9% white.
I vaguely remember an interaction with an African-American alumni from my boyfriend's fraternity. When I met him, he expressed how difficult of a time it was for him, and told me how difficult it would be for me. I disregarded his comments because I believed it was because he came from an "older" generation. But what I didn't know was forthcoming reflected his warnings.
The trimester after I got into my sorority we had another black girl pledge. We dropped her a few weeks into her pledge process because she “smelled bad.” I was so uncomfortable with what happened. They convinced her pledge sisters, 6 white girls, to get together and sit down the only black girl and tell her she can no longer be a part of their pledge class. It puts a pit in my stomach when I think about what she felt in that moment. It was disturbing to me on so many levels. Yet, I remained quiet because I felt defenseless in my opinions. I felt like I would be ostracized by speaking up - for standing up for someone that I didn’t want to judge based on anything other than that fact that she wanted to be part of our group. She wanted to work as hard as every girl in her class to participate in our twisted organization. I think about her a lot when I think about my Sorority; I envy her exit.
I was surrounded by a shocking amount of ignorance. I lived on the East Coast my entire life, and the majority of my classmates, specifically in Greek Life, were also all from the East Coast. Yet, because of our different upbringings and backgrounds, there was an unusual amount of accepted racism.
Once a week, on average, I would hear some variation of the word “nigger” from a white person. The first time I remember hearing it while at college I was hanging out with my boyfriend and his Fraternity brothers at their apartment. They all referred to a bouncer of our favorite bar, who was black, as “Nigger.” Sick nickname right? (read sarcastically) They repeated the word “nigger” so many times I genuinely questioned if I was actually invisible. My stomach turned every time it came out of their mouth. It was like a gut punch mixed with intense nausea. What left me the most shell shocked was the comfort they had letting it spill from their mouths. Especially because I, a woman of color, was sitting in the room.
Shortly after, a Sorority sister told black jokes at a fraternity mixer. There were about 35-40 of us in a room, me being the only black person, as she rattled off some of the most offensive jokes making fun of black culture. Continuously referring to black people as “niggers,” by her third joke, someone caught the tear falling from my eye and asked her to stop. She stopped. And when I felt I could slip out under the radar, I did. I called my friend crying and she scoffed in horror and expressed she was sadly not surprised. Neither was I, but it still hurt.
This same girl, Karen (yes, that is her real name), also told black jokes when I was hanging out with a smaller group of friends one night. The joke:
"'Where do niggers come from?'
During my time within the sorority we never once had a mixer with a black fraternity or sorority while I was there. Instead, we mixed with animal killers (yes, really), drug dealers and rapists. I watched how easily white men could quite literally get away with murder.
My landlord once called someone “nigger rich” in front of me and my roommates. We thought we misheard him, so asked him, “what?,” only to have him repeat himself. When he started to explain it the room was filled with awkward silence. I sat there wondering what I ever did to have to be exposed to this. And to think my black family has worked their entire lives against this treatment, and these terms, infuriates me. We do no right. And when we do, we still get cast as ugly stereotypes with the implication that we could never really be successful. Even after we’ve kicked, screamed and fucking clawed our way to equality.
A younger sorority sister of mine once introduced the word “niglet”. What does that mean, you may ask? Why, she was referring to a young, black neighbor I had. He was all of 8 and was already having racist remarks spewed against him for just existing.
Another sorority sister once made a joke about the fact that only black and Hispanic kids were at a bus stop after school. "Isn't it so interesting that it's just black and Hispanic kids at the bus stop today," she said and laughed.
Another sorority sister had her phone stolen from a girl she described as a “black bitch.” “Come on Amelia, you know what I meant,” was her response when I asked why her race had to be brought into it.
A different sorority sister of mine once called another, very white sorority sister, “niggerfied” because she had a tan from the beach.
These are many of the same girls that don’t see that this country has created a system that is built to repress Black Americans.
Being half black and culturally having grown up in a White American atmosphere, I see further into the world’s racism. I saw and heard what happens behind closed doors. Most of my friends didn’t consider me black, which was offensive in itself. But because of this, many people were all too comfortable to let their true colors shine on through.
I can only speak on my experience. I know my lighter tan skin has afforded me privilege. But it comes with a different layer of adversity. Because I am well spoken or as many would ignorantly say, “sound white,” people have let hateful remarks slip off their tongue. So many people think I turned my head and let their comments drift into the infinite world of white noise. I tried, but every time I heard something racist, degrading or demeaning to a person of color, it stock piled into the brick wall I've built up to protect my feelings.
"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."-Maya Angelou
Disclaimer: The use of the "n word" in my essay is used only as a direct reference to past experiences. I do not condone or co-sign the use of the word by anyone, and under no circumstance should it be spoken by a person who is not Black. This is a derogatory racial slur oppressive and offensive in its nature and there is no place for it in the human vernacular.