by Fenêtre Dalexy-Smith
I’m sure you have heard of “the talk”. The uncomfortable talk your parents have with you to explain what you already probably knew about sex. More often than not, both parties dread having “the talk” but ultimately your parents want to teach you because when the time comes, they want you to be safe and prepared. In the same way, another type of talk (sometimes called “The Rules of Survival”) teaches children how their blackness will brand them in American society and how to act in certain situations. “The talk” explains for example, how to keep your cool (in any situation but especially) when someone is racist because if you don’t, you are 1) automatically threatening, and 2) it happens too often to get upset anyway. Every black kid hears “The Rules of Survival” lesson the moment they are old enough to understand.
I heard it when I was 6. My family ran out of a few staples: garlic, cayenne, and plantains, so my dad and I drove to our regular grocery supplier, PCC. Immediately when the automatic doors parted in our presence and I felt the icy air conditioner blow a curl into my eye, I was sent to find what my dad had requested, a “fun new flavor” of ice cream. Since ice cream was my favorite food at the time, I’m sure I was thrilled to be given this task. After about ten minutes of deliberation, I excitedly marched back to where my dad said he would wait, ready to show him what I chose. I slowed down after turning the corner and seeing an employee approach my dad. The same employee who had been following us around since we got there. The PCC uniform was a burgundy apron and it seemed slightly oversized on his lanky body. He couldn’t have been much older than I am now. As I walked over I saw him muster up enough courage to lift his hand over my dad’s shoulder and release it, much like a claw machine. Then he used his grip to spin my dad around and ask him to “please follow me to the back room”.
I was instructed by the boy to wait outside of the security office but my dad motioned me in. I think he wanted me to see an example of it meant to be branded by blackness. The boy begrudgingly ushered us both inside what was marked “security office” and told my dad to hand over his bag. When he saw what was inside, he tried to mask his surprise. A tablet and a Kind Bar. He threw the bag to my dad, “stand up, I have to search your body.” I wonder to this day if someone asked the employee to search us or if he chose to. After he revealed the lack of stolen goods on my dad’s body, instead of admitting his fault, he justified himself. We followed him out of the dusty room that was lit up by a single light bulb and he cleared his throat, “simple mistake, you understand.” Car rides with my family are usually overpowered by dancehall, r&b, and soca blasting from the speakers and constant chatter overlapping. This car ride was completely silent. All I could hear was my dad trying to stifle his silent cry. One single tear ran down his face and left a mark that lasted until later that night when he gave me “the talk”.
He explained that as a person of color, I had to be aware of and accept certain situations that would arise because of my skin. Situations like the one that had just happened. He said that cops, store owners, store employees, and everyone else would stereotype me as dangerous, especially living in Seattle. I pretended to understand but all I knew about race was that it varied from person to person, I didn’t know the social connotations that were connected. More than that, I didn’t realize there was a superior race that could demonstrate violent racism, and I would have to learn how to ignore it.
Soon after, we moved to a West Indian community in North Miami Beach. Right as I started trying to understand the concept of “the talk”, we moved to a neighborhood where the issue didn’t seem relevant. The community helped me grow because now I understand a part of myself that Seattle couldn’t have exposed me to. Unfortunately, my family grew so comfortable there, that I didn’t need to be taught about being black in America anymore. It disabled me when we moved back to Seattle. It allowed me to become racist. And throughout my middle school years, I learned to hate my skin and my hair and tried to be as white as I could. I stayed out of the sun to avoid tanning, shopped at Brandy Melville, and straightened my hair everyday to the point of no recovery. I bought into the idea that whiteness is superior.
It was strange moving into the 1050 house in Maple Leaf after being immersed in the North Beach community for one reason that stands out above the rest: our neighbors, John and Stacy. Although the neighborhood is made up mostly of middle-class families, like mine, our neighbors hinted that we didn’t belong.
At some point during the cross-country drive from Miami to Seattle, as we both wiped sweat from our shiny foreheads and breathed in the smell of five-year-old furniture in the back of the U-Haul, my mom thought it best to warn me. “Avoid the neighbors,” she started, then sighed, “they weren’t too friendly to your dad.”
I encountered the neighbors for the first time when I found Deb kneeling by our fence and feeding something to our dog, Jimmy. Soon after, Jimmy got sick and was dry heaving uncontrollably. A few hours after we took him to the vet, he died. My mom went to Deb’s house to see if she really did poison our dog and Deb’s husband, Bill answered the door, “Don’t bring niggers on my block.” My mom, sister, and I speculated for a while if our neighbors were a part of the KKK because they had such a violent response to a black-ish family living onto “their” block.
Our theory has since been confirmed. Another one of our neighbors told us that Deb and Bill had talked to her about the klan and encouraged her to come to a gathering. Bill also encouraged every one of our neighbors to report us for suspicious activity so we would get arrested or evicted. Sadly, their plan failed. Since then, they haven’t outwardly attacked us but they are waiting, impatiently, for a chance. Every morning, every night, and anytime I leave our house, I can count on seeing Deb’s small blue eyes pierce through mine. Because I am a person of color, I am part of an oppressed group whose job it is to allow the oppression. My family has to live next to these people who are protected by the law and we are forced to worry constantly. Because if the cops were called for the slightest infringement, any one of us could be locked up or killed.