What It’s Like To Grow Up Black In The North


When I was 12 or 13, my Dad and I would go through one of his high school yearbooks and flip through the thick, musty pages that smelled insanely good. It was like unraveling some historical archive from hidden remains with the smell of old ink that engulfed my lungs. The faded pictures showed People of Color page after page. I had never seen so many afros and curls in one place before. I came across my Dad’s senior picture. He had on a faded brown suit, wire-thin glasses that sat on his pointy nose, and a thick, black bush of a beard looking thirty years his senior.

“Dad, your school was mostly black?”

He nodded. “We’re talking about Chicago’s south side, Ash.”

Of course I knew that, but being surrounded by black classmates was so foreign to me. In a way, I envied him. It must have been nice to be around people who looked like him. I imagined how much easier it would be if I went to school with people who shared the same race and hair texture as me. I pictured girls in my class rocking tight braids with colorful barrettes, kinky twists, relaxers, and boys with house cuts and waves.

“Where are the white kids then?” I asked.

“Other parts of the city and the suburbs.”

I was confused.

“Ever heard of ‘white flight’?”

I had not.

“Years ago, white families lived in my neighborhood. When your grandparents and other blacks moved in, whites relocated to the suburbs and the north side.”

I identified my grandparents’ move from New Orleans to Chicago a part of The Great Migration — the movement of blacks from the South to other regions. I then recalled my grandmother sharing how she and my granddad purchased their apartment building from a white couple years ago.
De facto segregation never seemed to bother my Dad. I figured it was because it was his norm.

For me on the other hand, de facto segregation was a hard concept to grasp in my naïve, color-blind adolescence. Why would any person willingly choose to be segregated? Brown v. Board eliminated legal segregation in public spaces and schools, yet ample integration by choice was, and has yet to be a social reality. I was one of the very few black students in a suburban school district.

“I did have white teachers though,” he added.

That was one thing I never understood, even when my grandmother remembered her childhood days in Louisiana. White nuns were her teachers and every one of her student peers were black, yet her neighborhood was mixed.

My grandma recalls very little racial tension in New Orleans — only the subtle, passive-aggressiveness that existed in Chicago’s infrastructure in the early ‘60s. Very few whites functioned as a neighbor or student peer to blacks in the North. Chicago’s segregated streets and school systems have paved the way for my cousins’ public school education today. Two grade schools lie in their neighborhood. One is public, the other, a private Catholic school. The neighborhood is mixed, but the public school is filled with mostly black students, while the demographics are the complete opposite for the Catholic school only a few feet away.

How can blacks and whites live next to one another, but not attend the same school?

Textbooks depict the North as the safe-haven for black Americans; a place where cross burnings and dominant racial oppression ceased to exist. No one told me about the subverted ways in which racism and prejudice still moved about our lives like a cunning, unwinding spiral of hypocrisy.

I grew unfamiliar with a space that was an hour away from my hometown. It was a different Chicago — what I perceived to be a newly transformed passive-aggressive setting. But it had always been this way, I was just too blind to see. Now I understand the troubling comparison of the South to the somewhat better North.

Even as I visit my hometown today, segregation is alive and well. White families make up most of the city’s neighborhoods, while low-income families of color live on the outskirts of the school districts. My parents are among very few blacks who have the means to live in this particular area. It’s an area that is discreetly disingenuous to backgrounds that defer from a white upper-middle class.

Every so often, my Dad would explain why he and my Mother moved to the suburbs. His common response was to provide better educational opportunities for me and a life without crime. While I appreciate their efforts, my life in the lily-white suburbs is one I choose to forget.

The education was great, and it definitely prepared me for post-secondary education. And thankfully, I didn’t have to worry about gun shots on my way to school. I also had neighbors who didn’t have a problem with me playing with their kids.

But in school and in public, I felt empty, out of place, and unwanted. Not only was I different because of my skin, but classmates discovered I was an only child and had “a Chinese last name,” which people found very strange. I would wear my hair in a way my white classmates weren’t used to. I was a black dot in a white room, a black dot on the playground, a black dot on the dance floor surrounded by white faces.

When I’m home from school, my Dad asks me to run a few errands. I’ll drive my SUV to the grocery store up the street, and as I wait in traffic, I’ll notice men and housewives look over at me as if the car I’m driving isn’t mine. My stomach sinks, my hands grip the plastic steering wheel, and my eyes shift to the words on the stereo’s screen to distract myself from the gruesome stares. My eyebrows crinkle, and I spit a few hateful words under my breath and accuse them of being rude. Why would their eyes widen when seeing a black girl driving a nice car?

My hometown and college town is very similar. I see that segregation has reached even the smallest, most rural towns in the North. What was once surprising is nothing new to me now. It’s 2013, and still, segregation is a choice people practice.

Black people primarily reside in a section of Iowa City, while white locals and university students find comfort in their fixed, accustomed, Iowan culture with very limited cultural competency. Black males receive longer sentences in jail and are targeted every week by police officers “doing their job.” They’re regularly stopped and questioned in the streets for looking “suspicious,” while a group of white kids are getting high and wasted somewhere with weed packed snug in their pockets. A mall security guard interrogated my black friend and was surprised when she admitted to being a PhD candidate. I’m given a longer stare in the mall unless I have a backpack.

“Let me guess, you’re from the South Side of Chicago,” a white boy said to me. His eyes lit up and his mouth literally formed an O after I named my hometown. I couldn’t tell if he was in disbelief a black girl was from there, or because I wasn’t from “the ghetto” like he presumed.

“Whoa, that’s like, rich.”

I shrugged. “Not entirely.”

Weeks later, I was sitting in a car full of white girls raising money for a philanthropic event. The driver said, “Sorry guys, but we might be fundraising in the ghetto neighborhoods tonight. I didn’t choose the routes, so don’t get mad.”

“I didn’t know Iowa City had ghetto neighborhoods,” said the girl next to me. She was from Michigan and apparently thought Iowa City was incapable of having assisted housing for black people. In America, everyone and their Mother knows “ghetto” is code for black, so I knew I wasn’t being paranoid/trying to “insert race” in a given situation after taking offense to the driver’s ignorant and insensitive comment.

I immediately grew uncomfortable, and again, not wanted. Why did the driver feel the need to apologize? There’s nothing wrong with asking black families to donate to a philanthropic event. Just because we weren’t driving to a peachy-clean privileged white neighborhood didn’t mean we should have received a disclaimer. This girl saw me and my brown skin before we got in the car, yet she didn’t make the connection. She didn’t filter her words.

Again, I was the only black person in a social setting, and again, the white people around me didn’t care. They’re the dominant culture, why should they accommodate for minorities, right?

Perhaps there is no need for me to complain. Sure, I do not have to worry about men in masked hoods and white robes pulling in my driveway and burning crosses, or police officers partaking in a Klan motorcade and raiding my community. My Dad doesn’t receive nightly threats or have to dodge gunshots firing in his bedroom window. He isn’t a sharecropper like my great-grandfather, depending on an overseer to survive in rural Louisiana. My Mom isn’t a domestic and working for a white family. She has people work for her.

Richard Wright deemed Chicago a city of hope compared to the vicious frailties of the South in his work, even if the North, as Langston Hughes said, “is a kinder mistress.”

My experiences as a black person in the North may not compare to the life of my grandparent’s who experienced Jim Crow. They may not even compare to the life of my parents, whose generation was only a small child when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed.

But in many ways, our experiences are very similar and mentally destructive. The North is a kinder mistress, Chicago is a kinder mistress, my hometown is a kinder mistress, and Iowa City is a kinder mistress. Racism may not surrender itself in a blatant manner nowadays, but it still overshadows daily interactions. It’s simply taken on a convoluted form. It is a labyrinth of detrimental beliefs and behaviors. Racism manifests itself among school systems and institutions that rely on traditional notions stemming from discriminatory practices long ago. “White is right” is engrained in developing minds from the get-go, often projected in our media and education. Racism begs for us to give it attention, rather than pretend it simply does not exist.

While I sometimes wish I was raised around more people who share my racial background, my passion for human and civil rights would not have been identified at such an early age. My parents chose to raise me in a space completely different than theirs as a way to combat years of racial subjugation and terror that’s kept the black community behind, while also giving me the opportunity to receive the same benefits as white children in privileged neighborhoods.

Subsequently, I have also been urged to assimilate and appreciate a Western and Eurocentric culture in the academic and social setting. My cultural identity has been buried beneath daily routines and experiences in spaces that are heavily segregated.

This does not mean I can no longer thrive in environments that lack racial diversity, but I do feel a sense of inadequacy as the dominant race and culture practices. White is right. I’d like to discover a moment where segregation no longer exists. I want to experience an environment where people feel comfortable surrounded by those dissimilar to them. I want America to see de facto segregation is just as destructive as segregation by law.

Then again, maybe segregation is a natural part of life and I am being too optimistic. No matter how hard we try, segregation may be something humans can never counteract because at the end of the day, we feel most comfortable with those like us.

In that case, is segregation worth perpetuating? I think it’s important for us to have the opportunity to maintain a shared identity with a given community, but I’ve also seen what racial segregation has done to me. It’s made me feel like I wasn’t good enough to be around white people. I’m the token black girl, an “Oreo,” the spokesperson for the black race in vital discussions, and the exception of the standard pre-conceived notion that argue black people are never qualified, they simply benefit from affirmative action.

Only a select number of neighborhoods in America foster an all-inclusive, esteemed, and celebrated multicultural setting. Very few spaces have an in-between where all races are widely represented and appreciated. If I’m not able to discover or move to such a space, I have yet to determine which environment is best for me: the mostly black environment of my Dad’s upbringing or the mostly white setting of my hometown and university.

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