My former boss cornered me in my cubical, looked into my eyes and asked me what I preferred to be called. She is a tall, lanky, pretty white woman whose hair curls in the Southern humidity.
I hesitated before responding to her question. My childhood facial expressions told on me; moments later, I finally responded, "called?" I said. My frown lines deepened in-between my un-plucked, naturally shaped brows.
Bashful but determined, she whispered in my ear, "Black" or "African American?" I could tell that she had summoned up the courage to ask me this important question. I couldn't bear to see her sweat any longer and replied, "either is fine, just don't call me a Negro." I flashed my right dimple and smiled.
Unexpectedly, she became stiff while I became confused; "I'm just kidding," I said and calmed her nerves. She exhaled from relief. She was undoubtedly nervous, but in retrospect, also brave. Many times people are too afraid to ask questions regarding the touchy subject of "race."
Little did she know, her question lifted a veil of pain from my childhood of being called the wrong name.
Everyone remembers the first time that they were discriminated against, whether it was in reference to your race, sex, class, or sexual orientation. My first encounter with racism was when I was five years old, at a magical theme park in Anaheim, California. While crossing the jungle gym, I encountered another child head-on. He was about my age -- white, with red freckles and matching hair. Unable to get around me, he yelled in my face with an evil snarl, "Move Nigger!"
We both knew the history of that word and the pain it carried. I grasped onto the net and held on tightly trying not to brush his shoulder as he crawled pass me. I wanted to defend myself, but was left speechless.
I am a daughter of a former field worker. My mom, Hazel Ann Harris picked cotton just 45 minutes outside of Atlanta in the early 1960s. My permed straightened hair, shaved legs and Masters degree fool people about my roots. My hardships are nowhere like those experienced by my mom, and my memories of childhood segregation are not the depictions of segregated "Black" and "White" drinking fountains and bathrooms. However, subtle and invisible racism does plague my experience.
Being called the N-word at a young age is unbelievably painful and memorable. While I cannot speak on behalf of everyone in my community, in my experience, truthfully, the terms African-American and Black are so interchangeable that most Blacks won't be offended whichever term you use to describe us, as long as you don't refer to us as a Negro or, God forbid, the N-word.
Children talk about race and the color of their pigmentation, as they hold their arms up to one another in comparison. My sons will know what's in a name, and in the history and meaning of terms used to describe their ethnicity.
They will also have the wisdom, like their mother, to educate those who are fearful to ask the questions about race in order to claim the respect necessary to be called what we prefer based on any of our given identities.