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Wednesday, May 07, 2008Twenty Years Later The Taste Is Still Bitter
My friend took her two small children to one of the numerous playgrounds in Central Park over the weekend.Like a lot of Puerto Rican families the ethnic diversity of our ancestors are evident in her children. Her daughter like her is fair skinned and is often mistaken for being white; her son belies our Taino and African heritage and is dark.
Her little guy a kindergartner loves to play superhero and has taken to wearing a cape around his neck lately. In fact he never leaves home without it. The siblings were playing in sandbox when they were approached by a little Caucasian boy wanting to play with them. When the little white boy admired the kindergartner’s cape the little superhero being generous in nature whipped it off and offered it to the boy so that he too could pretend to be a superhero. Just as he was about to take it another kid a friend of the little white boy snatched his hand away, “Ewww don’t play with him he’s too dark! He’s black!” he said as he pulled his friend away from the little superhero and back towards the little superhero’s Caucasian looking sister. Naturally the little superhero was hurt and ran crying to his mom.
As my friend finished her story she started crying remembering the hurt look in her son’s eyes and wondered how this would affect him. Our friends rushed to reassure her, telling her not to worry about it that given a child’s short attention span the little superhero would forget all about it in a matter of days and not be affected by the racism at all. In my head I disagreed with them, like one’s first kiss one’s very first taste of racism is never forgotten.
She stared at me I had offered no such optimistic reassurance. I think that on some level she was hoping that I’d offer it. I could offer none. More than any of them I understood her son’s pain and knew how it could scar a child. I still carry the scars of my first brush with racism to this day when I was exactly his age. Twenty years later I can still see the little tan skinned girl sitting in the chair facing the wall looking at her hands through silent tears.
Whenever I think back on that day the pain is just as fresh as the day my new teacher said to the class, “Don’t play with Mia she’s Puerto Rican.” screwing her face in disgust as if I’d been a puppy that had taken a dump in the middle of her classroom. When several of the children former kindergarten classmates of mine ignored her instructions I was put in the corner as a warning to what would happen to them if her order was disobeyed again. Twenty years later despite the fact that I revel in the beauty of my skin my heart aches like a mo’fo when I think back to my first taste of racism. Twenty years later the taste is still bitter.
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