Growing Up Black In White Suburban America


My migrant ancestors came to Los Angeles from middle of nowhere Arkansas. They told their kids to always look sharp, believe in Christ, and stop talking back and getting in with crime. They made some money along the way—picking cotton, or working as domestics and eventually moving down to inner city LA. Now their descendants wear expensive cotton blouses, have their own modern domestics (maids), and left the inner city for the burbs. What most of us would see as: uppity, bougie tutuville USA.

My black friends who refuse to associate with what they call “White America” think just because I live in a predominately white suburb, I live in a paradise. Like a permanent vacation—we’re all just drinking mashed up vegetables, getting baked on the daily, and settling down with white guys with names like Brad or John. How can they act like our families don’t have to deal with as much as theirs? Do our pleas to police officers to “just leave” us “alone”; do our fears for our brothers and fathers not have the same meaning? To be honest, I haven’t gone a day without fearing for my safety in fifteen years.

For the last 20 years, I’ve been living in a “paradise” of: gates homes for the rich, and ghettos for the poor. Prescription drug problems to be thin and desperately finding self worth in large envelopes from Ivy League institutions. You know, in the late 80s, an article in The Los Angeles Times described Pasadena as an “Island Paradise” for the Black American Elite. Paradise can go fuck itself.

Hearing stories about surviving in the hood did make me appreciate all of the things, but mostly, the love I received as a child. My dad would always tell me how he learned to be street smart. But if there is one thing I learned from growing up in a predominately white suburb, it was this: Men will repeatedly mistake my double-consciousness for some rare, exotic quality that is really just the confusion or anger or shame that defines what it means to be a light-skinned, black woman.

So when I say “paradise can go fuck itself,” I don’t mean that my parents efforts or my ancestors efforts, or my childhood lessons were worthless. I just mean, just because some of us are black, and just because some of us can still afford to sport pearls and shop at “Urban,” doesn’t mean that we are shaded from racism. More than anything, the people of suburban paradise want to keep their children, homes, and minds pure of anything that sparks questioning received opinion. For many of “them,” the sight of our (naturally tanned) skin, our songs about “starting from the bottom,” and invitations to our homes (that look just like theirs!) are reminders that: we are not broken, we will never be broken, and that maybe, just maybe, they should be scared.

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