Growing up as a child, my mother taught me many things. She taught me to be independent, persistent and kind. Everything I am is because of what I learned from her. As much as I don't want to admit it sometimes, our personalities are very similar.
Our features are even the same. We look exactly alike except for one thing. She is fair skinned and often mistaken as white. My brother, looks like her too, only with blue eyes and blonde hair. And then there's me. The dark one of the family.
My mom would often tell me when I was an infant that people would stare at her trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. You know, wondering how this green-eyed baby fit into this seemingly perfect Norman Rockwell painting of mother and son. She laughed about it and I would as well. She never wanted me to feel out of place even though I couldn't help but feel that way.
Living where we did and attending the school I went to, didn't help matters. There weren't many African-Americans and the majority of the population was white. When I graduated, in our class of about 80 there were about 10 black students. And I think I may be over estimating. It’s was a small town where everybody knew everybody - which was good and not so good.
I had experienced some racism throughout my childhood. Friends saying things like, "My parents love you, but if I were to have a black boyfriend, they would be pissed." Friends that were cool with me in middle school, no longer were in high school because I was black. Things that I shook my head at, but tried not to let get to me. I pushed it to the back of my mind because I didn't like to think about how hurt I was by their words and actions.
And honestly, until I saw the video of the teenage girl in McKinney, Texas, I hadn't really given any additional thought to my own experiences, including my senior year of high school over twenty years ago.
That year alone I had three instances where the police were involved. Yes, three. Before you jump to conclusions, I can guarantee you I was not a defiant kid by any means. I listened to my mom, I went to school, I had decent grades and I had a job. I was like most of the kids in my class. But for obvious reasons, I stuck out.
The first was at a public football game. I brought some friends with me that I had met over the summer. I got to know them pretty well and thought it would be a fun thing for us to do. It turned out to be the exact opposite. Words were thrown around, the police got involved and they had to leave. I didn't realize because they were unfamiliar they were not welcome.
Then there was the time I was driving home from a friend's around midnight. I wasn't speeding and I hadn't violated any traffic laws. I wasn't even blaring loud music because my car didn't have a stereo system. It did have tinted windows, though. I was pulled over because my car looked “suspicious.”
The very last incident, I was put in handcuffs. The infamous senior prank to vandalize the school with shaving cream and silly string did me in. The facts: I didn't touch the school. I walked around the building with two friends to see what was done. The police showed up. They ran. I didn't. I sat in the back of a police car while a group of my classmates argued with the officer that I was in fact a fellow student.
Nothing happened to the two friends I was with. They weren't sought after and they didn't get into any trouble. The ones that actually trashed the school didn't get into trouble, either. I probably forgot to mention they were white. What happened to me? Well, he eventually let me go but I got to clean up the mess that was made.
I know, I was trespassing. And, I'll go a step further, I was warned earlier in the day not to go up there. It's not one of my proudest moments. I was a kid. A senior, no less. I didn't make the right choice. So does that excuse the officer from assuming I didn't attend that high school? I told him I went there and he refused to believe me. No matter what I said, in his eyes I was a complete stranger.
Like the kids that attended that pool party in McKinney, I was presumed to be an outsider, a trouble maker and possible criminal. I had no business being where I was because of the color of my skin. The town I had been a part of for years.
This was a topic my mother never mentioned to me. Most likely, because she never had something similar happen to her. Now, not only am I preparing for a conversation I knew I would have with my son one day, I was sorely reminded that I have to do the same for my daughters.
It infuriates me and it isn't fair that I have to adjust our lifestyle to appease others'. Unfortunately, that's the reality I and my children live in. If I want them to be safe, I have to teach them to play by the rules. To dress properly, speak appropriately, behave in a certain manner and to stay in areas that are familiar to them.
And what pains me the most is knowing that after doing all of that it still won't be enough. At a point in their lives, someone will view them as an unsightly blemish that needs to be dealt with.
They won't see them like I see them - beautiful, innocent and harmless children. They will only see an intruder.