This is the fourth of five essays written to summarize my first year working in Korea. I lived and worked in the most unusual environment of my entire life, and while I am grateful that I experienced a lot of uniquely difficult situations, it took a long time to conclude what it really is that I had experienced with 50 other foreigners. For those that experienced that year with me or for those who have always wondered what even happened to me that year— this is to enlighten you.
Essay IV| The Black Table
I’ve always been vehemently against the “black nod,” and for those of you unknowing of the notion? Let me break it down. There’s this understood and internationally accepted idea to nod or acknowledge the other black person in the room. There’s poetic and historical meaning behind this ‘nod’ or in some cases a wave. Its the casual fist pump of ‘power to the people’, and its the physical whisper that says, “I’m here too and I see you–keep doing it.” I always thought the entire idea was stupid. It’s as if we need support for living among others. It angered me, and it made me feel less than.
“I’m the not same as you, you don’t know me, you don’t get to nod at me just because I have the same skin tone as you, you don’t know me!”
So when I flew to Korea, I thought I was going to be in the furthest place I could be from the ‘black nods.’ But on arrival to my job, I was faced with not just nods, waves– there was a whole fucking table. An entire table that the black teachers had segregated themselves onto. I was mortified, horrified, and disgusted, and made a note to myself that I would never find myself sitting there.
My family attended a predominantly black church till I was twelve years old, but due to the terrible bullying I received there, my parents relocated me, and soon after moved our whole family to a predominantly white church where I was much more successful socially.
White people and I just clicked from an early age— in my Midwestern suburb, that is.
I had ‘dooky’ braids, talked with a funny accent (thanks to my Trinidadian family), and stared too much (and it didn’t help that I had eyes larger than normal). Don’t get me wrong, some of my childhood best friends were African-American and we had all kinds of imaginative glorious play times. We snuck around in the bathroom stalls at church, choreographed dances to ‘Stomp’ by Kirk Franklin, made fun of fat people together, and goofed around during Sunday schools– it was a blast. But something switched when around ten years old I wasn’t allowed to watch enough Moesha episodes to learn to smack my lips, do my hair, or switch my hips like all my friends seemingly learned to do overnight. So I was bullied, and my parents’ solution was to whisk me away to kids who were still behaving like kids, and that seemed to be only found in white communities.
I remained in predominantly white communities well into my adulthood, and the older I got the more distant I felt from any kind of cultural affinity to African-Americans. I had harbored so much rejection and hurt from my small exposure that I felt disjointed from anything near that. The best part, was that I had an escape with my Caribbean family. I wouldn’t acknowledge my African-American connection and clung to the immigrant side that just couldn’t relate to African-Americans. It felt better, it felt exotic, and right to claim my Caribbean culture, and it helped me to feel justified in distancing myself from any African-American community issues or setbacks. They were them, and although I empathized deeply, I was me.
I remember doing a training right after I had finished university for a camp counselor job for a camp working with inner-city kids predominantly African-American. We did one of those white-privilege line activities. How it works is you take a step forward based on the privileges that you don’t even realize you have encountered based on your race or socieo-economic background. For example, take a step forward if your parents went to college, take a step backward if your parents didn’t finish high school. Its supposed to be sobering for the white people present, and I don’t know— angering for the marginalized communities represented? I’m not sure. I remember that at the end I was just a step behind the whites and equal to some when a lot of the other blacks and other non-whites were far behind us. The facilitator looked at me, with utter shock and anger, I had fucked up the activity, and I was completely naiive about where I stood in the great white world of America. I think I even took a step forward when they said do you see yourself represented in the media. “Well ya, of course,” I thought, “… Beyonce is everywhere.” I was so delusional.
Six months into my contract at my teaching job in Korea, I had successfully avoided the black table, and managed to develop an understood keep to yourself attitude between me and the girls that sat there. A new boy teacher was hired from England. He was colorful, bright eyed, and looked like Johnny Tsunami. He was just enough white for me to relate, and just enough colorful to find him cool. We had loads in common, but quickly found that we had just as much or more differences. He wasn’t impressed with all the indie folk bands I knew, and even though he knew what Patagonia was and all of the overly white labels I was into–he wasn’t moved nor even seemingly impressed. He’d always seem to move the conversation to something much more challenging for me to tackle, he’d ask me questions about being black in America. And sure, I had processed a lot of that internally by then, I had never expressed it, or even been asked by any of my other black or white friends. My few black and non-white friends I had were just as as white culturally, and my white friends— well they were white, and didn’t think to ask. His inquisitive nature and deep admiration for marginalized communities became more apparent in my friendship with him, and I learned to be a little uncomfortable with my lack of acknowledgement for an entire deep, rich, beautiful part of who I am. He judged me in a strange yet loving way. There were numerous drunken squabbles where he would tell me how he just couldn’t understand how incredibly spoiled and disillusioned my sense of race was. But those hard conversations dripped with solvent of change within me— I couldn’t shake his comments. Although he couldn’t understand my reality, he definitely brought my own sense of it to the surface.
This buddy of mine was annoying and frustrating but, I loved him. So, of course, when he began sitting at at the ‘black table’, I gritted my teeth, and sat down there too. It wasn’t comfortable for me whatsoever, I was giving into so much pain that I had avoided for so many years. I was frozen with thoughts rushing every which way inside of me. The twelve- year old girl couldn’t bare this self-induced torture. She was screaming inside, “why are we sitting with the bullies.” It wasn’t those who sat there that day, it was what it represented. They held a shadow of so much pain and anguish in my past. I was always other. It was them that caused me to feel forced to regain self-confidence from another racial group of people— that despite their love and care, will always remind me, that I am other. So there I was faced with my otherness in all of its glory.
He wasn’t the first friend I encountered that reminded me that my racial identity was painfully deranged. Back at that camp, where I (naiively) participated in the white privilege activity. I befriended some boys, that were my co-workers, who became my first African-American friends, as an adult. They were full fleshed in what could be perceived as all the black stereotypes– baby mama and all. I fell in friend-love with them, and I resented my family members for not buying me a pair of Jordan’s, watching Boyz in The Hood in the home, or any of the small or large gems that are a part of the black American experience which I had completely missed. There was an entire existence of culture, experience, and a wealth of good stereotypes that were all very foreign to me. The beauty of my hair and the regality of my crown that so many beautiful black woman carry? That whole idea was missed. At 23, I knew about 2-3 hair styles to do, and the majority of the time— I was too scared or frustrated to do much with my hair. Going natural (with my hair) wasn’t a statement for me, it was the only option that I knew to do when I was too lazy to straighten my hair. Those boys were so special to me, but their friendship only reminded me even more that, I am a fish out of water when it came to my own race. The older I became the more shame, embarrassment, and otherness I let pervade my idea of race regarding myself.
I was sitting at this table. To be honest, it was a lot more multicultural than black that day, but still— I was just another brown skin girl there. Sitting with them, I had to face my constant feelings of rejection by the people who look like me. I wasn’t fitting properly, I was uncomfortable, and I was ashamed by it all. At least with white people, I was black, Caribbean, and it made sense why I was different. But here? Amidst a sea of brown– I was still other. As I sat there, I could feel myself sinking into my betrayal toward that twelve-year-old brown-skin girl inside of me. She was empty and painfully grasping for a place to be celebrated for her eccentricities. There was no room for her. The black table. The white table. The multicultural table. She belonged no where— and neither did I.