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The New Face of Racism

by Lauren Carter
Plainville, Massachusetts

Having an African-American father and an Italian mother makes me biracial. In the predominantly white, suburban town where I grew up, it also made me different. As a child I was no stranger to racism. Quickly realizing how irrational and utterly useless it was, I was determined not to become a helpless victim or a bitter victimizer in its losing game. I believed that racism had explicit causes, effects and boundaries, and that by understanding all three I could rise above it. But everything I had come to believe about racism changed on the night that I stared into its face, only to see my friend’s eyes staring coldly back at mine.

That warm, fateful night started off in a deceptively ordinary way. It was the beginning of September, school had just started and it was the first eighth grade dance of the year. As usual, the dance hall was too hot and overcrowded with middle schoolers expending enormous amounts of nervous energy to the beat of the latest song. There was the DJ up on the stage, spinning records like Rob Base with “It Takes Two”, the Fine Young Cannibals singing “She Drives Me Crazy”, and Digital Underground rapping about “The Humpty Dance”. There were the obnoxious pink and green flashing lights that are a mandatory part of every middle school dance experience. The chaperones stood dutifully along the walls in between floating balloons, one eye on the adults they were conversing with, the other on the excitable pre-teens they were there to supervise. I was surrounded by a circle of friends, fully immersed in dance steps like the Roger Rabbit, the Running Man and the Kid n’ Play. My Keds squeaked on the freshly polished hardwood floor as I twisted my feet to the Half Step.

I began to move towards the back of the dance hall, next to the stage, where the light was dimmer and the music was louder. That’s where I saw my friend Mike, half-standing, half-dancing somewhat uncomfortably in a crowd of his friends by the stage. Mike was handsome, funny and popular. We had been close friends for several years and we’d always enjoyed an easy, laid-back camaraderie with one another. His friendship was important to me, and I got the feeling that mine was important to him as well, though he would never openly admit it. He was a popular guy in middle school; he had a macho image to maintain.

I jumped next to him, and trying to loosen him up, I smiled and encouragingly said, “Come on Mike, this song’s awesome, let’s get down.” But he must have been embarrassed in front of his friends, or trying to come off tougher than he felt, because he laughed at me and said, “You look like a retard, stop sticking your chest out like that. God, why do you always have to show off at dances?” He was not smiling like he usually did when he gave me a good ribbing. I wasn’t sure what his problem was, and honestly, I didn’t care. I had more important things to think about, like what song the DJ was about to play.

I am not sure exactly what happened next. I think that my indifference must have angered Mike, because I vaguely remember hearing him continue on, like static mildly disrupting the song I was trying to listen to. I think he wanted to fight, and the fact that I was genuinely not phased by what he had to say only made him angrier. A few of my friends came over and joined me. Mike continued to try to argue. Finally, in the half-serious, half-joking tone we often used with each other, I muttered, “Dude, why don’t you relax and give it a rest? I’m trying to dance. If you don’t like the way I dance, just don’t watch.” And with that I returned to dancing.

First I saw the look in his eye. It was a look I had never seen before, and never wanted to see again. I believed I could see black holes where his pupils should have been, endless space that swallowed me in its angry gravitational pull. Then the word hit me like a fever. My skin was burning hot, but inside I was cold, so cold. I don’t remember what words came before or after it in Mike’s sentence. I heard it once, in an instant, and then I heard it again and again, as if I had entered some infinite cave in which the word “nigger” just bounced back and forth from wall to rocky wall. The cave, I realized, was inside my mind.

Just moments before I had been completely oblivious to the outside world and what may have been going on in it. Now I was utterly at its mercy, the effect of every particle of air, molecule of sound, minute vibration and ray of too-bright light that existed around me. My sensations felt all wrong. My fingers felt too short for my hands. I tried to stretch them but they just remained taut. My feet were planted on the shiny floor like a tree held to the earth by long, bulky roots. There was too much air around me, and yet none of it would seem to enter my lungs. Something wet drifted down the side of my face, and if this hadn’t been a middle school dance, and if I hadn’t been twelve going on thirteen, and if my friends weren’t standing at attention in a tight circle around me, I might have actually been grateful for moist teardrops to cool my burning cheeks. I tried to focus on one object, on one moment, on one thought, and found that I could not. There was nothing inside my mind but that treacherous word and confusion.

As many times as I’d been called a nigger, the word always packed a punch that knocked the wind completely out of my slight body. There was no way to avoid that pain when it came crashing down on me, so I had learned to ride it out like a violent wave that brings you back to a peaceful shore. But this time was different. Because this time it was Mike that had called me a nigger, and Mike was not a school bully, or a random individual who didn’t know me from a hole in the wall, or a discriminating parent that didn’t want me dating their son. Mike was my close friend, and he knew the painful, minute details of the racism I faced on a daily basis, and he was supposed to understand. Yet here he was, in a hot, crowded dance hall, with an army of his friends standing behind him, calling me a nigger like we had never shared our most private thoughts with one another. It was the greatest betrayal I had ever known.

In that moment, the foundation that supported my view of the world, at least in racial terms, simply collapsed. Suddenly prejudice and racism did not fit neatly into the box I had compartmentalized for it in my mind. I had been called a nigger, that was nothing new. But I had been called a nigger by my close friend. I realized that no matter what else I was, no matter how good a friend, how upstanding a citizen, how hardworking an employee, how honest an individual, the common denominator of my existence could always become “nigger”. As I stared down at the white Keds I had bought especially for that dance, and breathed in the fresh polish still lingering on that shiny floor, I didn’t know how to accept that a mental framework I had spent my whole life so carefully constructing had been destroyed in one instant, by one boy, at one dance, with one searing two-syllable word.

Off somewhere in the distance I heard Led Zeppelin filtering through the air with “Stairway to Heaven”, the last song of every dance, signaling that our time there was almost over. At the thought of going home my spirits lifted momentarily. At home I could rush up to my room, slam my door shut and lay silently in my bed. In my bed there would be no pink and green flashing lights, no white Keds, no shiny floor, no friends standing at attention, and no betrayal. I could lie there and be completely still, and open my eyes and see nothing, only the darkness, and I could stare into it until I drifted into a deep sleep that put what had happened at that dance in my past, and separated my past from my future.

Looking back on it, I realize that for a popular guy in middle school, allowing a girl to insult you in front of your friends is the social equivalent of flushing your image down the toilet. I think that Mike was probably just trying to restore what he perceived to be his own tarnished image by damaging mine the best way he knew how, with the most potent word he had in his arsenal of verbal insults. I want to believe that while he was trying to hurt my feelings, he didn’t realize he would hurt them as deeply as he did. I need to believe that. But I’ll never know for sure, because after that night, I never spoke to Mike again.

By the age of twelve I was fully prepared to deal with racism. It was a fact of life I couldn’t ignore, nor succumb to, nor perpetuate, and so I did what I believed would only make me stronger, I stared it in the face without flinching. I was prepared for the racial slurs, the demeaning comments, the stereotypes, the discouragements, the forbidden dates, the rejections, the mockery, being considered “too black” by whites and “so white” by blacks, all of that and more. I was prepared to face racism from my enemies, acquaintances, strangers, and people who knew me but simply didn’t know any better. But I was not prepared to look into the once-familiar eyes of my close friend Mike, on a warm September night at our first eighth grade dance, and see racism there as well.

Published in In Motion Magazine February 10, 2003.