“You're just an ‘oreo.’”
Although I no longer remember what spurred the comment, I do remember the laughter that followed and the way my cheeks flushed. I was neither angry nor ashamed, but merely embarrassed for being called out on the school bus and having all the attention turn toward me. My elementary school classmates incorrectly assumed my mother was white and since my father was “obviously” black the appellation made sense to them. Even though I knew they were technically wrong, I did not bother correcting them. Years later, I was selected to read a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. over the junior high school public address system. I was not one of the students whose morning ritual included reading school announcements, but I understood the logic of the school administrators' decision. A snowstorm and subsequent school closure on the appointed day cancelled that performance.
I was never so naïve as to believe that these experiences—the most clearly racialized moments I can recall prior to ninth grade—amounted to much in the grand scheme of race politics in the United States. I grew up black and a child of privilege, a product of the excellent public schools in the liberal and fairly diverse suburbs of Montgomery County, Maryland. I knew these things, accepted them as fact, and did not stop to think about what they meant. Based on my family's physical appearance I understood the misapplied taunts of my elementary school friends. I also understood that a black student in a predominantly white school simply had to be selected to speak about King. These things made sense to me as well as to others around me.
At the end of junior high school, my ninth grade history teacher refused to recommend me for the high school advanced placement history program even though I performed far better than most of the students he did recommend. I was crestfallen because I would not be sitting with my best friends the next year and infuriated because I understood that my teacher was a bigot. His shortcoming would limit my potential, and I had no recourse. As it turned out, being teased or honored for blackness did not phase me. Being refused for blackness was another matter.