Coping With Racism In Childhood

A.T. Steel

How I was able to cope with racism from peers and adults as a child

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Older Brother, Me, Mom, Baby Sister, Younger Sister, Older Sister, Dad at Aunt Eileen and Uncle Alan’s house in Staten IslandSteel Family circa 1994
I am a racially mixed person. My mother is predominantly Panamanian and African American, able to trace her roots through her great grandmother back to slavery and the antebellum south. There is also some Irish in her lineage through her grandfather whose red beard and great smile she remembers from when she ran through the sugar cane stalks on his land in the deep south. My father is a second-generation Jewish-American whose grandparents abandoned their Russian motherland in favor of America during World War II. I grew up attending events, reunions, and holidays with both sides of my family and it was this upbringing that made me blind to our racial differences. As a babe, I had brown and pale faces smiling down at me and showering me with kisses and love. To me, the only difference between them was the color of their skin, but even that was the kind of difference between the colors of cats — orange, gray, striped, black, and white. They were all still the same thing. That was the belief that I held until my older brother started attending middle school.

My brother was ruthlessly bullied by children and adults for the color of his skin.

The first time I realized that hatred of people for their skin color was possible, my brother came home from school hysterically crying. My mother had to interrogate him before he gave up any information about what had happened.

A few of the other kids had grabbed his legs from beneath his seat on the bus and dragged him over and across the floor. Another kid grabbed his backpack and held him down. He told the bus driver what had happened when they let him go, but she didn’t do anything. It was insinuated that they had targeted him because he was one of the few brown-skinned children at school — and definitely the only one on that bus route. My mother was furious. She had some choice words for that bus driver the following morning.

Not long after this, mom was called to the school for a meeting with his teacher and the principal. According to the teacher, who my mother described as a beady-eyed, doughy idiot, my brother was behind the other children in class. She said that he had difficulty reading and writing and that mom should consider putting him into special-needs classes. He had none of these problems and even excelled over his peers when prompted to demonstrate. The principal wasn’t buying it and the meeting was closed with my mother and brother being sent home with some extracurricular worksheets and study guides. That night, she received a strange call from a woman that she swore was my brother’s teacher, who said only one thing before hanging up the phone:

Hi, Dingo.

A dingo is a wild Australian dog. I imagine she had something more clever in mind to say — or perhaps thought that the dingo was an African dog. The idiot woman couldn’t even get her insults together before dishing them out in anonymity.

I watched my brother forge alliances with the other brown-skinned kids in school.

There were just the two of them at first. And, then later, three. On occasion, they even mentioned aloud why they had become friends, and it was to protect each other and themselves from the racist kids in their school. They fought back against them, getting into all sorts of trouble that kept them in detention day after day.

I felt a defensiveness for my brother that manifested in a quiet and introspective way. I wondered if any of the kids in my school thought of me the way that bullies thought of my brother and his friends. I had never taken note of it before, but I started scanning the halls for other black kids, and in my entire elementary school, there was only one. He and I did not share a class, but I remember watching him when we arrived in the morning, lined up outside, waiting for our teachers to lead us to our classrooms. I watched him during lunch too, trying to see if anyone looked at him unfavorably. They didn’t. That calmed my nerves.

My brother seemed to find his coping mechanism in fighting. He and his friends laughed off the hatred and responded to the bullying with overwhelming violence of their own. I soon learned not to worry about him and, for a time, even the thought of racism slipped from my mind. That was until I experienced it for myself.

The first direct and unambiguous instance of racism I encountered was in the first month of fifth grade.

As all of the children fought to get through the crowded hall and into the classroom, someone behind me shouted:

Out of the way, Nigger!

Shocked, I spun around and made eye contact with a troublesome kid named Gregory. I knew right away that it was him. Playing baffled, he looked over his shoulder, then back to me, and shook his head as if he were disappointed. I kept it moving and found my seat. I didn’t know what to do or how to respond — especially since he would outright deny what he had done. When class ended, I went to the teacher and told her what had happened. Since there was no way for either of us to prove that it was Greg who had said the words, she told me that there was nothing she could do. She was sympathetic and told me to keep an eye out to let her or another teacher know if it happened again. It never did, but I kept an eye on him until we moved away and I switched schools.

While that incident was explicit, I had experienced racial prejudice many times before in more subtle ways.

In daycare, when I was about eight or nine, there was a woman who always sneered at me when I was dropped off. She would ask me why my face was so dirty, why my hair wasn’t combed, and refuse to let me skip nap time like the other older kids. Her abuse made me feel small and question my worth. It had never occurred to me that she was doing this because I wasn’t Caucasian. Only years later, in hindsight, did I consider the possibility. And the self-deprecating stories I told myself started to unravel. My face wasn’t dirty — it was just brown. My hair was combed — thoroughly, but it was an Afro. I was the oldest child in the facility but she forced me to go to sleep with the younger children in a room away from my sister. Another boy, younger still, but Caucasian, was allowed to remain awake and play with board games and action figures. My sister and I were the only ethnic children in the daycare, and I was the only brown one. They took a liking to her (because she was pale, I thought), but, sometimes, we were both ostracized for fabricated crimes like stealing snacks and staring at the caretakers. I knew what she was doing was wrong because whenever one of the kinder women came around, she would change her tone and even backtrack on something that she had just said.

I was walking home from elementary school and an older kid on a bike knocked me to the ground and ran over me.

I was a latchkey kid by then and was trusted enough to take myself home. He didn’t try to stop or warn me that he was coming — he just knocked me over and rode across my body like the concrete. It hurt like hell. When I looked to find him, he shouted over his shoulder:

Look where you’re going, darkness!

I used to make mental excuses for the casual racism of other people — certain in my mind that they were misguided or that I was reading too much into their words. But, looking back, darkness does seem a suspicious thing to call a brown child in a sea of white faces. He did not hit any of the other children either — he actively avoided them. I knew because I watched him ride up the road until he disappeared to make sure.

I always responded to racism with confusion and incredulity.

It never really made sense to me that people could choose to dislike each other because of their colors. That was probably because of my own mixed family. I was never made to feel our differences on either side of the family tree and I think that this was because there were no differences between us. When you live with supposedly different people heavily involved in your life, you realize that we are all the same thing.

My coping mechanism for racism was incredulity. I did not have to think too hard about it because I knew that it was senseless.

It was only when I met with racism from adult authority figures that I felt reduced — shrunken and embarrassed.

One particular incident that stands out in my memory occurred at a birthday party for my Great Grandmother Pauline. It was just me and my dad that went this time — everyone else had something going on. It was held in a private room at a fancy restaurant. I was a little older now and I had begun to follow my brother’s fashion sense, trying to look as cool as possible. I wore an oversized yellow jersey that came down to my knees, blue jeans, and a blue durag over thick cornrow braids. It was 1999. I was the only black person at the event and the only child. My dad took me around the room greeting family members. I shook a lot of hands. When I got to one particular table, I shook hands with a relative whose name I can’t remember, and when I put my hand out to the man across the table, he folded his hands beneath his chin and stared at me with the coldest expression that I had ever seen. I just stood there, holding out my hand, with my smile fading away. His stare was glacial. I would still be standing there awkwardly today had my dad not taken my hand and led me away.

Again, I was confused and tried to wrap my head around what went wrong. I knew by then that people could be racist but this was a member of my own family — bound by blood and a shared lineage. We had both come to pay homage to this great matriarch of our family together after all. I sat at a table with my dad for a while before he brought another uncle over to chat. This uncle shared his name — Steven Steel, and he was a producer on a “big Hollywood movie”. He was very nice and offered to take me on-set the following month so that I could meet the crew and see what his job was like. I spent a while talking to him before my dad asked me if I wanted to leave. I did. I think he could see how uncomfortable I still was with what had happened. We left together and he took me mini-golfing. In the car, I asked him why that person did not shake my hand. He told me that he was an “asshole” — a “mean man”, and not to worry about him. I stopped stressing over it by the end of the day, but I never forgot him. I met him again many years later at a dinner for my great aunt and uncle. He shook my hand this time, but I think it was because I was old enough to make trouble if he refused. And, because he knew that Aunt Eileen and Uncle Alan loved Stevie’s kids.

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Me, Dad, Grandma PaulineSteel Family circa 1999

I have only experienced one instance of aggressive racism that could have ended very badly.

In our new rural town, where we had moved about six months prior, a friend, my sister, and I left our home to walk to our favorite spot in the woods to climb trees and pretend to be anime characters. While walking along the dirt road, full of excitement and joy, a blue station wagon pulled up next to us. The people inside didn’t say anything at first, but after a while of following us, someone in the car beckoned my white friend over. He spoke to them for a moment, gave them the finger, then came back to us. The car lingered. We went into the woods — my sister and I didn’t know what was happening. Suddenly, the man in the passenger’s seat of the car shouted:

What are you looking at, boy?

I knew he was talking to me. I had heard this tone before and I knew now how to recognize it. My friend, a white male, told my sister not to worry while simultaneously pushing me forward — into the woods toward our destination.

Come here! Don’t ignore me, you little black bastard!

I was scared, but I had developed a practice of apathy toward senseless bullying at that point, so I turned away from them and kept walking. The passenger door opened, my friend took a few quick steps as if to run. The older teen who stepped out saw this, climbed back in, and the car spun out and drove down the way they had come. We all thought we had dodged something really bad, so we chuckled a little and kept it moving. When we reached our favorite spot, at the tip of a nearby dead-end road, we started to relax. I noticed the car first. It had appeared at a fork in the road around the corner. It turned down toward us and picked up speed. We panicked. All three of us darted into the woods and ran as fast as we could back to our dirt road. My sister was screaming — I kept slowing down to make sure she wouldn’t be left behind. We made it back to my house just as the blue station wagon pulled up. They slowed down for a moment, must have thought better of coming for us as we darted through my backyard, then sped off. I asked my friend what they had said to him when they called him over to the car and he told me that they asked him what he was doing with me and what I was doing with that little girl — my SISTER. He saw them again a few days later and they stopped to say something to him, but his father was there, so they sped off — for the second and last time.

I didn’t really treat that incident as seriously as I think that I should have. God knows what they planned to do if they had managed to get to us. I wonder sometimes about the boy that they did catch; the innocent child made to suffer their hatred and violence. And, I feel a deep sadness and shame for failing to impress upon anyone what had or could have happened to us that day.

Even though my coping mechanism was incredulity, I still held unconscious insecurities bolstered by abuse.

I sometimes wondered how different life would be if I were born white. I did not have confidence in my looks. When prompted to create custom characters in video games, I always made them white. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized these habits and insecurities stemmed from the insidious and subtle racial prejudices that I had faced in childhood. They lingered with me years after I thought I had moved on. And, in that way, they may have been more dangerous than outright, unambiguous racism. At least in the case of the latter, I could denounce it as wrong and immoral — bring it to light and have it condemned so that I could heal. Instead, I had to grow significantly as a person before I could identify and eventually break these psychologically traumatic cycles.

Conclusion

Before I started writing this piece, I hadn’t realized that I had had so many experiences with racism. Whenever asked about its presence in my life, I glossed over it with the memory of the man at my Great Grandmother’s birthday party presented as the only example. I actually considered myself lucky that I had only experienced one or two brushes with irrational hatred. Then, I would remember being called a Nigger by Greg in fifth grade, and I would offer that up as an afterthought — somehow categorizing it in a different place in my brain like he deserved a pass because he was a peer. I had all but pacified over my brother’s stories of torment, the daycare matron who emotionally abused me and my sister, the older boy who casually ran over me on the sidewalk, and the aggressive youths in the blue station wagon. Even writing this closing paragraph, I am remembering a vicious babysitter who separated my brother and I from our sisters and fed us ant-infested cereal while they ate omelets and hot dogs. I recall a friend’s aunt glaring at me while we ambled through his house, and her small son running up to me and calling me a ‘poo-poo face’. The smile that she flaunted afterward always made me think that she had instructed him to do it. There remain many more instances still that I can’t bear to write.

Despite it all, life was still often rainbows and sunshine. I have the most loving family that I could have ever asked for — first and best friends for life. It was this blissful beauty that allowed the disgusting moments of racial prejudice to fester like dead bodies in the tapestry of my memory. I’ve long cleaned up the mess that they made, but every time I pass by their crypts, I stop to think about how the experiences helped to define the proud and confident person that I am today.

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You can also check out my personal blog Metallically Black where I talk about writing, life, dying, and what have you.

I spent some of my childhood in Jackson, New Jersey. When I was eleven years old, we moved to the rural outskirts of Browns Mills. Not long after my twelfth birthday, we moved back to New York City, my birthplace, and one where I had not been since I was five. I am still here today.

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A QUEER, BLACK LITERARY ARTIST TALKING ABOUT LIFE, SOCIAL ANXIETY, DISSOCIATION DEPRESSION, LGBTQIA+ ISSUES 🏳️‍⚧️🏳️‍🌈, SEX, AND DEATH.

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