Black and Brown, Part II

Our story resumes in the fall of 1991. When I began the sixth grade I’d lived in Seattle for less than a year. I’d adjusted to the idea that we would not return to my beloved Southern California but still struggled to fit in. Seattle was so cold and Anglo compared to Cali. Soon after arriving I thought to myself: where are all the Mexicans at? In Cali the Hispanic imprint was so dominant; in the Pacific Northwest it seemed to be nonexistent. My earlier experiences with racism from Latinos, however, would soon be supplanted by a hatred that I never saw coming: the intense Colorism among African-Americans. Prior to moving to Seattle I was blissfully unaware that a hierarchy of color existed within my own ethnic group. My Mama had always told me of how beautifully dark I was, so the notion that my skin tone was a negative thing was alien to me. Unfortunately African-American children both at my school and in my neighborhood changed that belief(you can begin the series I wrote on this subject last year here). To hold my phenotype-one that clearly identifies you as of African descent-was apparently one of the worst fates to befall a Black little girl.

The lack of sun up north would eventually take my borderline charcoal complexion(which I still miss) to a double chocolate tone. But sun or not I always remained in the dark category, and kids never let me forget what that was supposed to mean. By the time I started school that September my relationship with Latinos was no longer at the forefront of my mind. My stop was one of the first on bus #556, which took me from Rainier Valley to a middle school in an area of Seattle substantially nicer than the one I lived in. I delighted in the fact that I was one of the first kids on the bus in the morning, as it spared me the anxiety and discomfort that comes with stepping on a crowded bus. On the first day of school I hopped on at MLK & Dawson Street.The driver ambled down MLK, making a left on Graham street and beginning his climb up the steep hill. Three blocks later we stopped in front of a brick-colored home. I saw a girl my age, holding a Lisa Frank binder against her chest,  who looked just as nervous as I felt earlier in the morning. Once she was on the bus I was able to get a better look at her. She clearly wasn’t black, her skin and features outside of the range found in my community. I could see that she wasn’t a WASP either. Her skin was light but had a hint of brown, skin that would not burn or peel in the sun but rather bronze. Thick, curly hair the color of charcoal billowed out of a ponytail at the top of her head. She’s probably Latino, I thought to myself. I wasn’t going to be mean to her. But I wasn’t going to be friendly either. I wasn’t the most bubbly child to anyone when I was eleven years old, but my fears based on previous experiences made it even less likely I’d speak to her. There’s no use, I said in my head, her people hate Black people anyway!  When she looked at me as she walked down the aisle I returned eye contact but said nothing. She sat down in the seat across from mine and neither one of us said a thing.

By the end of the week, however, something happened. When she got on the bus that morning she sat directly across from me as usual but this time she spoke.

“Hi my name is Raquel! What’s yours?” I answered her.

“Hi Raquel, I’m Danielle.” That simple introduction turned into a conversation full of laughter. Raquel and I established a camaraderie from that day on.  I learned that she was Latino but not Mexican descent. Raquel   was from El Salvador and fluent in English and Spanish. After that day Raquel and I always chatted in the morning. Throughout middle school we would remain acquaintances, linked by the familiarity that comes from living in the same neighborhood.

The spring of 1994 would bring our graduation from middle school. My entrance into high school that fall would shift my social circle. The middle school that  Raquel and I attended was already much smaller compared to the others in our district. The majority of students in our class went to Garfield High School. Raquel and I were part of the minority assigned to Franklin, which was Garfield’s rival.
“UGH, the seniors are so ANNOYING”, Raquel said as we stood close to the giant keys near the front of our school, waiting for our friend Tisha to arrive. On my first day of high school I felt like the proverbial fish thrown from a small pond into a vast lake. But thankfully I had Raquel’s familiar face to ease my nerves. Over the previous three years Raquel and I both underwent physical changes, the angular planes of our bodies morphing into the curves and fullness that signal impending womanhood. In high school a similar process would take place, our casual friendship solidifying and us becoming BFFs instead.

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A native Seattleite and East Coast transplant, I have been interested in politics, religion, and race from the day I saw “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” on the bookshelf belonging to my BFF’s mom back in 1991. While my zealotry has thankfully diminished with maturity, I remain the deep thinking, passionate, and humble woman I have always been.

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