My Family "Didn't See Color"
So us kids weren't really expecting the rest of the world to, either.
Imagine being on the fist end of a long sinewy Nigerian throwing punches at your face. Imagine him being compelled by some vindictive force you can’t begin to understand. Now imagine he has a brother with him throwing the same vengeful haymakers in your direction. Four fists pounding you mercilessly. This happened after a high school basketball game when I was a sophomore. The Nigerians were two of my good friends, and the guy getting wailed on, well, he deserved it. It was a long time coming.
Speaking of a long time coming…
I’ve had a diverse upbringing. First, my mom and dad adopted my black brother and sister at birth. It’s been enlightening as I’ve seen a lot of racism directed at them over the years. I myself am of a melanin dipped and cinnamon persuasion. I wrote about that here (When I Found Out I Was Brown: A Friend Like Blake). Because of this, so many off-handed comments over the years have bristled up against the sense of equality my parents established within our home. From “when I found out I was brown” to when the father of a girlfriend once asked me if I was Mexican and if so said that worried him because, “…Mexicans were very possessive and he didn’t want his daughter being taken away from the family, or not allowed to see them as much,” if things were to continue to get more serious between us. Growing up in a colorblind home was secure and hopeful, but it didn’t prepare us for the friction we’d face in the real world. I remember one of the earliest questions I had for my mother was related to the church song, “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” At our church the words were, “red, and yellow, black, and white.” Once I asked my mom why brown wasn’t included, so she told me it should be sung, “Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world. Red, brown, yellow, black, and white.” That satisfied me in the moment and I decided to include myself in the song from that point on. But it always felt weird inserting my own words and catching glances from the other kids.
I would call this a mild form of racism compared to what one might experience who’s darker than me. Maybe it’s because I was raised in a small town where everyone knows everyone, or maybe it’s because racism exists on a spectrum directly related to the shade of non-white you inhabit. Imagine being the only black kid in your school and town- that was my brother and sisters’ experience while growing up, until the Nigerians came. One searing memory I have is when my little brother, Jacolby, was in the second or third grade and was cartooned into a barnyard scene along with the entire class by a fellow classmate. All the kids in the class were colored chickens inside the barnyard fence - yellow, fluffy and doing their chicken thing. Except him. He was drawn as a black chicken outside of the fence depicted apart from the others. We all had to deal with things like this from an early age growing up in a triracial family. Add these instances on top of other identity issues adopted kids can face and you have a childhood where fewer things can be taken for granted.
You just learn to expect that people have an inferior view of you and most of the time, you don’t even hate them for it. You pity their insular perspectives. At least you grow toward that response over time. But you also wonder how much of the rejection you’ve experienced in life is because of your “otherness”. Did you not get the girl, job, raise, or respect in the presentation because you’re the chicken outside of the fence— and the person standing in front of you wielded the crayon so many years ago?
There was another truly enlightening experience in the way we grew up. A proud Nigerian family moved to our small town (population ~500) of farmers and ranchers when I was a freshmen. Michael Okogbo, the father, a physican, opened up a practice in the town and his four kids would become some of our family’s best friends. To this day we still keep in touch. My family dealt with racism in one way: we almost acted as if it wasn’t real, or that if it was it was such an isolated event that it wasn’t worth any consideration for worldview bearing. Even though my dad recalls terrifyingly a KKK cross being burned in their front yard as a boy in Louisiana, there’s something about our overall outlook that ignored it as much as we could. I almost think my parents never heard about half of our troubles maybe because we didn’t know it was something you were supposed to be talking about with family. Plus, there was this idea that the white family we were a part of didn’t “see color”. They meant that in the most pure way and I think they truly believe it, but wondering back I think it made us less able to own our “otherness” outside of the home. This was not the case with Michael Okogbo’s family. They relished their blackness. To be clear, I don’t remember them ever acting toward white people as if they “saw color”, but they damn sure weren’t as timid about their differences as we were. One time Dr. Okogbo saved my dad’s life by claiming that he was his brother in order to have the hospital where he worked admit my father immediately when a strep infection entered his bloodstream. (Read about his coma here). So they didn’t really see color either, but they also didn’t take any shit.
Once at a high school basketball game, a player from another town kept talking trash and calling the two oldest, Ehi and Irabor, the n-word. Through out the entire game this went on. If refs saw it they didn’t say anything. If other white opponents heard it, they didn’t say anything. If Ehi and Irabor’s teammates heard it, they didn’t say anything. If the coaches saw it, they didn’t say anything. So on went this verbal assault, the game ended, both teams retired to their locker rooms to shower. No sooner had the water turned warm, when Ehi and Irabor stormed the locker room of the opposing team swinging fists. I’m not sure who all got got in the melee but it was a ruckus that spilled out into the hallway— I’m not sure if it was full-on Eastern Promises no towel fisticuffs, but I don’t know how you hold a towel around your waist when Nigerian fists black as midnight are swinging for your dome. Of course the biggot deserved the bloody nose and black eyes. In a way, so did anyone else who didn’t speak up. The actions and hatred of one player pushed them into a corner, then when it was all said and done, everyone sat around and acted surprised and shocked about the violence.
Now, I’m not for mob violence or rioting, but in the same way I’m not for gravity or aging. But gravity is just what happens the closer you get to the center of earth—and aging is just what happens when cells exist linearly in time. And when systems are corrupt and power is exercised inequitably along race, gender, class, or religious lines (matters of identity) momentum against said systems builds. While the majority of the protestor outlook is probably based somewhere along the lines of: yeah, we need reform. There are going to be constituents who have felt this systematic injustice their entire lives and are so conflicted by the fact that they don’t want to go and murder a white person, so they throw a brick through a window. They destroy some notion of order, some icon of institutional stability. They don’t know where the kid with the crayon is and they don’t know who wrote, “Jesus loves the little children”. And they don’t see any ref or coach or teammate coming to their defense. People are going to deal with these situations a variety of ways. We’re seeing how unpleasant and repugnant that can be. I’m completely against looting and violence. But I’m sure not ignorant of why it’s happening.