My cultural education as a child was tempered by the fact that I was moved around a lot. My mother and I stayed in Phoenix and then in Tucson and then in Phoenix again before I ever started kindergarten. It was a far cry from the rural Oregon start I had at the beginning and the first cultural lessons with I was bombarded with were a bit much for my preschool mind to take.
My mother got with my (white) stepfather shortly after we got to Arizona. At the time I didn’t know that Arizona and this man were a part of her personal history and the little blonde girl I met at the birthday party would become my stepsister. So this is my childhood: growing up as the brown person in a world of white adults and mainly white childhood friends (occasionally a Hispanic or native or other mixed raced, but rarely other Black children).
I went to SEVEN elementary schools and at each I was usually the only Black child in my grade or if not I was the only one in my class and only one of two or three in my grade. I was never actively given a cultural identity so what I gleaned was more of just a personal sense of self as the odd one out in so many ways (skin color was just the most obvious). Because the other Black or mixed children were in the same boat as me, they did not judge me or make comments on how I was “acting white” or that I was “not black enough” (that would come later). I did not have the “tragic mulatto” syndrome where I was rejected by both sides. Thankfully, we were all just children back then. The only events in my childhood that had anything to do with my race were very spread out. One was when I was six, and the next was when I was nine, and the last one I was about twelve. All these incidents had to do with the n-word
The first when I was six happened during the summer when we lived on an unfinished ranch house in a former mining town out in the middle of nowhere Arizona. I know it was summer because my (white) step brothers were visiting as they did every year. At some point we heard a very silly sounding word that tickled us so much we yelled it at the top of our lungs at the cats to watch them run away. The word of course was “nigger” and we would yell it and then laugh our guts out when the cats would run away. My mother was appalled! She told us how we shouldn’t say that word and it was bad. We of course had to point that we heard the word from the adult who was visiting. What followed was the most incongruent and surreal explanation of why not to do something from an adult that I ever had.
The guy was in his late twenties or so. He was a big burly Harley biker who proceeded to explain to us that we kids “shouldn’t say nigger because a nigger died in my arms in Nam” WHAT?? This line of adult “logic” broke my little six year old brain. It set the idea in my head that there was some kind of inequality and negativity in the brown of my skin. That idea sadly never fully went away.
The second experience that wasn’t directed at me but did effect me. When I was nine years old, my mother and stepfather were fighting and he called her a nigger-lover in front of me. I must have given him whatever the side eye was called in the 70s because he changed his course of verbal attack quickly. I held that against him for TWENTY YEARS and never considered him my father, He was my mom’s boyfriend. I had always called him Bob and never Dad (partially because he never required I call him Dad).
There was one other n-word experience was when I was twelve. My mother sent me to the store to pick up some things and as I was on my way back a small Hispanic boy (maybe six years old) waved a chain over his head and said “I’m a nigger whipper” to me. I immediately put down the bags of groceries and head towards him and he ran away. This experience with a brown person was yet another thing that broke my child brain. I was young but I knew enough to know that Mexicans didn’t have it that great in Arizona historically so this kids “attack” was just nonsensical.
The good thing is that I didn’t spend my whole childhood being bombarded by overt racism. I wasn’t called nigger daily or even weekly or monthly (three incidents in eight years and only the one incident was directed specifically at me). In this I feel blessed and it goes against the perception many I have met have about Arizona. I don’t know what it is like for Black children now, but in the 1970s it wasn’t that bad for me.