When I was a little girl, I wanted to grow up and become a geisha. They were beautiful and graceful and I thought they were just more prestigious ballerinas. As I grew older, I knew I couldn’t really become a geisha, because I wasn’t apart of that culture. I didn’t realize until I was twelve, however, that I was white, and I would always be white, no matter how much I didn’t want to be.
I grew up in South New Jersey and was very close to Camden and Philadelphia, two cities that are predominantly African American, according to the U.S. Census Data of 2010. My classmates, neighbors, friends and family members were people of color, and it was never discussed nor indicative of the way we treated one another. It was just an aspect of life that is out of our control, so why let it control us.
I’ve always been attracted to other cultures. In third grade, my school got a grant from the government to teach us Mandarin. We had three foreign exchange students, sisters from China who spoke very little English. I absolutely adored them. I took the sisters under my wing. We would play in silence; they were quite shy and I was horrible at the language. We watched classic American movies like Cinderella and jumped on my trampoline together. Sometimes we would do homework at their parent’s restaurant, and I would watch the chefs cook and curse and once we ate a fish with its head still attached. I knew we were different, but I didn’t know how or why.
Whenever there was a new student in my school district, I always found myself inviting them to sit with me at lunch. My biggest nightmare was getting to the cafeteria, tray in hand, with nowhere to go. When I was in 6th grade, I invited Justice to join my friends and I.
It’s hard to remember the details, but I do know this: I did not think Justice was any different than I. We became fast friends, and eventually sat with our desks parallel.
“You’re lucky,” Justice said to me one afternoon. Her eyes were scanning my outfit, which was probably something bright and new from Limited Too.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Because you’re white.”
Her eyes locked with mine and I felt my stomach turn, attempting to process this information. I had never heard anything like this before in my life. Not on television, not in books, and definitely not aloud. It was one of the rare moments in time where I was truly baffled; there was no previous experience or knowledge to give me any indication of what this statement meant.
“What?” I said. It was all that I could muster.
“I cry myself to sleep every night because I’m not.”
I wish that I had said something, anything, to let her know that it pained me to know that she wasn’t happy with whom she was. I don’t think I said anything.
I had spent such a large portion of my childhood wishing to be someone else. Through out the years I had wanted to be Hispanic, African American, Asian, and Arabic. I read viciously about these different cultures and lifestyles and desperately wanted to be apart of them. As a little girl, I genuinely thought I could be whoever and whatever I wanted to be. I didn’t get it; I didn’t know what race and ethnicity was and that you couldn’t just decide one day to be Japanese and that’s that. When Justice told me I was lucky for being white, it made my brain hurt trying to understand what that meant.
I was ashamed. Horrified that my ancestors treated a group of people who didn’t look exactly like they did as their cargo. I was so ashamed to be apart of this race and so outrageously mortified that my new friend, Justice, knew more about it than I did, and felt bad about herself. If anyone should have felt bad, it should’ve been me! I was apart of the reason she felt bad! The reason she wasn’t granted the same privileges as I! I felt sick. I threw up my pretzels from lunch in the bathroom and went home later that day.
Justice and I lost touch in high school. She found a group of girls who understood her better than I ever could. The Chinese sisters moved to a different school district and we also lost touch. But every time I go to their restaurant, their mother gives us a few extra fortune cookies.