02/21/2014 08:15 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2014

When Did You First Feel Your Race?

This year at Un'ruly we're exploring the various meanings and shades of "black," recognizing that "black" is a social construct largely created to justify slavery. Anthropologically speaking, there really is no black race or white race, but there are social positions and cultural characteristics associated with the color of a person's skin. We see this most clearly and painfully with every Trayvon Martin or Jordan Davis story that hits our news feeds.

From the conversations I've been having, I've begun feeling that being black in countries outside the continent of Africa has a lot to do with being put on the outskirts of a community or being made to feel different. The first time I had any inkling that my color was something that estranged me from others was when I was in primary school in London.

One of my friends had brought a few tiny samples of Avon lipstick to school, and during recess we all snuck into the bathroom and put them on, just like we had seen our mothers put on lipstick. I was only slightly bothered by the fact that the color didn't show up on my lips as brightly as it did on my friends', but that wasn't such a big deal. I had on lipstick, like a grownup! A few boys in our class had heard about what we'd done and decided to chase the girls with lipstick around the playground. We all started running around in a frenzy, like kids do. Then I noticed that no one was chasing me. I don't know how I found myself close enough to some of the boys to hear what they were talking about but not close enough for them to realize I was there, but I did, and what I thought would be an opportunity to spy on them turned out to be the first moment that I would "feel" my color. One of the boys, the leader of the pack, told the rest to continue chasing all the girls with lipstick, "but not Antonia, because she's black."

I always laugh when I think back on that moment, mainly at the thought of little boys chasing little girls because they had lipstick on. But it's clearly a significant moment since it stuck with me for this long. Before then, I knew I was black, but never had the thought crossed my mind that being black might be something undesirable or unattractive. That idea was thrust upon me in that tiny moment. The crazier thing is knowing that a boy of that age (we were probably about 6 years old, give or take a year or two) had already learned to make that kind of assertion.

I carry that memory in a small trinket of experiences. It doesn't weigh me down. It doesn't make me angry or sad. It simply serves as evidence of a reality that I had to face then and understand more now. Bias is so present in our world that it can be learned at a very young age. It creeps in like a fog, not quite as visible as it once was but very much present, silent and nimble, interrupting innocent playground laughter.

As we continue to explore the idea of blackness, I'd like to hear from you. When did you first feel your color?

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