For as long as I can remember, I was the only black kid in my circle of friends. Even now, as an adult, I have only one close friend who is black. I don't really know why it is, but I have often found it difficult to relate to women of my own race.
I grew up on Staten Island, the most suburban of New York's boroughs. While it has racially integrated neighborhoods, much of the island is still racially and culturally segregated. There are still neighborhoods where I would be considered unwelcome. Many of the whiter neighborhoods have better stores and restaurants.
My first enrichment activity was dance class, which I started attending at age two. It was in an exclusively white area, and as a result, all of my friends were white. My father was staunchly against it but my more open-minded mother fought him on it. I'm sure that not all of the dance parents were thrilled, but I met two girls that I'm still friends with to this day.
I don't really remember talking about the difference between my two best friends and me, even though I've been told that we asked our parents about our differences. According to our families, my friend Amanda and I wanted dolls that looked like each other, so she got a black doll and I got a white doll. No one made it into anything major, but I do realize that it was probably the easiest way to address the situation.
When I started elementary school, I was around more kids who looked like me. I easily made friends with the black girls in my classes because we liked a lot of the same things. We were all smart and always in a honors classes. I'd have them over for playdates and sleepovers, but I don't remember ever calling any of them my "best friend."
As a kid, I was well-read, well-spoken, and well-liked by adults, which made me an easy target for bullies. I often got told that I spoke "like a white girl." Oddly enough, this often came from adults. I learned later that this was this was not considered a good thing to many other black people; it meant that I thought I was better than others, which wasn't true. It's just how I was raised.
Growing up in the '90s, my interests were pretty typical of the era. I didn't know that black girls didn't read The Baby-Sitters Club. I wanted to be Dionne from the movie Clueless so badly that I made my mom buy me feathered pens and knee socks. Scary Spice was my favorite, and I wanted to be just like her. (Sometimes I still do.) Just because I thought these things were cool never made me any less of a black person. I assumed it just made me who I was.
Things changed drastically when I began intermediate school, which boasted over 400 students. Three local elementary schools fed into it, in addition to the kids from all over the island who came specifically for a special magnet program; theoretically, it was more racially mixed. Being in the magnet program and a good student, I found myself in uncharted territory as a minority. In sixth grade, I was in a more integrated homeroom, but when my grades improved, I was moved into a more challenging class. There was only one other black girl in my homeroom, and while we were friendly, we weren't close. There was only a handful of black girls in my drama class, and none of them wanted to hang out with me. The same thing was true for my experience with the school dance troupe.
It was during these years that I truly realized that I was different, and it wasn't really a good thing.
The other black girls in my school who wanted nothing to do with me were, in fact, my biggest tormentors, calling me an "Oreo" at every turn. Some were girls I had been friends with only a year before in elementary school. Now, because I was placed in a different group academically, they claimed that I acted like a "white girl." These girls broke my spirit, and I lost my trust in black girls. I tried to tell myself that I was a bigger person than my tormentors and I could rise above it, but every whispered word left a scar in my heart. I ended up isolated myself, and I had only white friends.
It wasn't until got to high school that I found black kids who were like me. It was refreshing and incredibly important to know that I wasn't alone and that I wasn't a traitor to my race, and it became so much easier for me to feel comfortable in my own skin.
When I chose to attend Emerson College, I knew that, once again, I'd be in the racial minority. Because of the confidence I gained back in high school, I was unapologetic about who I was friends with. I didn't feel compelled to join the black student organization even though they tried to recruit me. I knew that I was cast in my first and only mainstage play because my only black acting teacher was directing it. I gratefully accepted a scholarship given to black students my senior year so that I could graduate on time.
My tendency to have white friends also crossed over into my romantic relationships. From a young age, I knew that I would probably wind up marrying a white guy. My first crush was Jordan Knight from the New Kids on the Block. I spent my formative years thinking I was going to be Mrs. Justin Timberlake (I still wouldn't mind it). I hooked up with a black guy once, even though I kind of did it so I could say that I did. I admit that I am more attracted to white men. While I haven't married one, I did have a baby with one; my son is two-and-a-half years old and looks super-white. I don't love him more because of this, though.
I have never shied away from my race, but I have realized that I can still be a confident, proud black woman and still love the things and people I love. But despite everything that has happened throughout my life, I have never been more aware of my race than in the last two years.
Given the tensions surrounding the deaths of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile, I have become more vocal about the racial injustice in this country. I have taken issue with the lack of diversity in the entertainment industry and have spoken on it. I have become more outspoken and vigilant. And sometimes I have been taken aback by the ignorant responses from some of my white friends on social media.
I guess I expected more from them, but I am also realistic based on what I know about their upbringings. Many of my white friends from Staten Island are especially indoctrinated into a certain belief system because of the geography of the area. I think many of them are surprised when I speak about racial injustices because they don't see me as black.
As for my white friends, though some of them were totally off-base in their reactions to my speaking up, many have responded in a far more enlightened way than I expected. I hope that it's due to more than just me being their black friend, but at the same time, if being my friend has been the thing that propels them into fighting against racial injustice, I'm glad to be the reason.