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The More Complete Stranger – The First Time I Experienced Racism

The word ‘nigger.’

I have never been able to compromise its usage outside of the African American community. We can say it, you can’t. Seems to me like that’s something you should just let go of. Anyhow, as a child, racism gave me something like a body dysmorphic disorder. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it’s a neurological disorder in which you think your penis is bigger than everyone else’s. I also realized that I was innately attracted to fried chicken, as it is the natural African American food source (see koalas and eucalyptus, chickens and corn, monkeys and bananas, Caucasians and Bologna, etc).

As I grew older, I began to reason that the knee bone is only inadvertently connected to the collar bone—there are many variables, such as environment, education, family, and grit and wit that determine the worth and proclivities or desires of a person. It wasn’t until I moved to a white neighborhood that I became (and had to overcome) the inherent “other” my skin dictates me to be.

[media-credit id=16 align=”alignleft” width=”180″]Kareem James[/media-credit]

My first attempt to step outside of the parameters of preconceived notions and racism was in the fifth grade. I had just moved from Detroit to Wyandotte, Michigan, affectionately called, by its residents, “White Dot.” Jefferson Elementary. I was actually told by the principal that I was the only black student to ever attend the school. Within the first hour, the few students that warmed up to me incessantly insisted I teach them how to rap, how to play basketball, and how to breakdance.

And for the first time in my life, I felt absolutely trapped in my skin. So, wit happened. I began to explain to these faces that I didn’t know how to play basketball. Sure, I was named after Kareem Abdul Jabar, but I was cursed with a small body and clumsy ankles. I said I didn’t know how to rap, because my mother was a gospel singer, and we didn’t listen to secular music (only one of these statements was accurate).

Couldn’t break dance for the life of me. Moonwalking like Michael Jackson, yes. But that’s more like James Brown meets Fred Astaire than Turbo and Ozone. But you know what? l can teach you how to speak African. Sure! My whole family is from there! I’ll only teach you the juicy bits, too. I’ll teach you how to say “fuck”, and “shit-ball,” and “needle-dick.” By the end of the school year, every fifth grader clicked and murmured indecipherable tongues of “fuck you’s” and “you have a needle-dick” in perfect African speak, like Esperanto, as if there is one unifying African language, and as if I wasn’t pulling the leg with bells on it.

I was 14 years old the first time I became reluctant shortstop and the word ‘nigger’ was the ball to field. 1994. Kurt Cobain had just ended his life. The demise of Tupac and Biggie was just a couple of years away. It was Spring vacation, and my mother and I had recently moved into a duplex about fifteen miles north from where we had settled three years prior, away from my friends and my stepfather (a divorce was pending). Every weekend, I would hop on my bike and ride south to visit my friends. I was riding home from there and just a few miles away from point b when it happened.

I had my headphones on and I was listening to tape four of a collection of ten mixtapes I created called Rapapolooza. The sun was setting to my right and the not yet fully matured shade trees on the sidewalks of Pardee Road were twinkling with glow bugs, and buzzing with beetles. There was very little traffic. Just me and my music, my glow and buzz, pleased with this last visit and eagerly awaiting the next. “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik” by Outkast was on my Walkman.

My bike was in gear to cruise when I was stopped cold by a shatter at my rear wheel. A broken beer bottle and its contents soaked my left pant leg and the culprit, slowly driving south, stuck his face out, his grown man face, with pride, with dignity, with determination and shouted, “Niiiiiggggggger!”

Frozen in my tracks. I didn’t have Wikihow to help me respond (hand to Thor, there is a Wikihow page about responding to a racial slur. There’s even a page called “How to stop being racist,” in the event that kicking the habit is too hard to face cold turkey). It took me years to realize how much of a coward this man was but it only took seconds for wit to birth the retort “Only when I have to be!” as his rear lights faded south. I never paused or stopped the Walkman. Outcast was still playing but neared its end. Instead of listening to the next track, I rewound the tape to the beginning of the song.

Rewind, stop, play, not there yet…repeat the same process…rewind, stop, play the opening notes. The tension I felt dissipated, and my reality became, has remained, unafraid of ignorance. I felt like I not only knew something the beer throwing dipshit didn’t know, but I knew something the world didn’t know. This is all going to end one day. No one could ever be the construct of their skin when everything is temporary.

We are who we choose to be, so why be an asshole?

I am proud of who my skin makes me—the “other” colonialism created to divide and justify real savagery. Empowered by the history my skin holds.I believe that my skin, this history, is the story of America. The breathing embodiment of what this country was supposed to represent. I am the consequence of rape and theft and bondage, yet sanctified by deliverance. I am an example of the American dream.

The guy with the bottle? Who the fuck is he?



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