By Guest Contributor Deesha Philyaw
Growing up in Jacksonville, Florida in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I was raised to see the world in Black and White.
This manifests itself as an ingrained wariness of White folks, built in for the purposes of self-protection when I was bused from my working-class-on-the-decline neighborhood to the suburbs, beginning in first grade. My handful of White school friends notwithstanding, this was an us-versus-them kind of black and white. No one else–religious minorities, other racial and ethnic minorities, and people in other marginalized groups–was really on my radar in any meaningful way until high school. Even then, I heard friends and relatives use slurs against Asians (the least offensive reference was “Orientals”), “foreigners” (everyone who wasn’t identifiable as Black, White, or Asian), “sissies,” and “bulldaggers.” But I never used those words myself. Even as ignorant as I was, maybe I had a gut feeling about the ugliness and the harm in those words. I don’t know.
Image courtesy of All About Uni on Flickr
In 1989, I took an Amtrak train from Florida to Yale with my neighborhood friends’ warnings ringing in my ears: “Don’t turn White!” In a panic, I’d read The Autobiography of Malcolm X from cover to cover during the train ride. In New Haven, I bought a fiery poem by a poet with an Egyptian name from a street vendor. I posted it on my dorm room wall right next to my bed, before classes even started. I had to protect my Blackness. Don’t turn White!
By contrast, I’d grown up hearing a different warning given to girls who attended the HBCU that I’d considered attending: “Don’t get pregnant.” This school had a notorious reputation for “turning out good girls.” The lesson: At a Black college, I’d have to worry about sexual matters, but at a predominantly White institution (PWI) I only had to worry about race.
And worry I did, from the moment I stepped onto campus, overdressed for the occasion and the August heat, in a long-sleeved cobalt blue knit sweater set, matching shoes, and white tights. Immediately, I was aware of the differences between myself and the other Black women students. They wore cute cut-off denim shorts, flip-flops, and funky t-shirts. By the end of the next day, I would note the class, regional, religious, speech, and cultural differences as well. Just like that, everything I thought I knew about Blackness went right out the window. If I wasn’t “them,” and if I didn’t exactly fit in with “us” in this new place…who was I? Turning “White” was the least of my concerns.