The first time I ever had to speak as the voice of my entire race, I was four. It was during a kindergarten lesson about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Lucas, a fellow classmate and fashion victim of the classic ’90s DIY mushroom cut, however, was not down for the cause.
“I’m glad that Martin Luther King is dead,” Lucas said.
“You don’t want to drink from the same fountain as me?” I said.
I couldn’t even spell my name, let alone define the word “racism”. However, there it was, clear as the plastic on my glitter sandals.
“I just think white people are better than brown people,” he said.
The events that transpired following this statement can best be described as the kindergarten version of an uprising.
The reason why I share this story is because 16 years later, on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I’d like to issue a formal letter of gratitude to Lucas.
Lucas, thank you for being the first of many, many people to inform me that I am “less than.” Before that fateful day in our kindergarten class, I had four years of blissful ignorance.
Since then, my life has been a cocktail of “-isms” and phobias: two gallons of racism on the basis of my melanin content, three cups of sexism because of my pair of X chromosomes, one pint of xenophobia for my thickly accented parents, two tablespoons of tokenism so I could represent the “diversity” of my schools and a sprinkle of colorism for not being the racially ambiguous, loose curls, “lightly seasoned” black seen in all the motion pictures.
I am grateful because he ignited a fire in me that has been burning ever since. Somewhere in between our teacher trying to defend you by saying, “everyone’s entitled to their own opinion,” and me rebutting, “unless it’s stupid,” and definitely before I evoked the names of my ancestors the way I had seen my parents do when they get mad, it was ignited.
This fire burned later that day when the teacher spoke to me privately and explained, “he doesn’t know any better.” This fire burned throughout grade school when I was characterized as “smart, for a black girl.” It dimmed the day I allowed my classmates to call me “Blackie,” “Oreo,” and, “not real black” because I was afraid of being perceived as an angry black woman.
So instead, I became submissive. Sometimes there were strong winds, and on those days the fire was only an ember. On those days, I wanted to bleach my skin just as my aunts had. I wanted to change my name so it would sound less foreign. I wanted privilege.
Lucas, while I don’t know who you became (though part of me likes to think of you as president of the College Republicans at some “liberal” school down South) I think of you often, usually in my prayers. And though I used to hate you, I now pity you.
Barney the Dinosaur, my childhood hero, always said, “Sharing is caring.” The people who cared for Lucas must not have cared for him. Same with the people who made excuses for him, the people who insisted that he didn’t know any better and in the process made themselves no better.
Every time I talk about the black experience in the presence of my clearly uncomfortable white friends, I am caring, and in writing this piece, I am caring.
I am grateful for the first person who ever made me feel oppressed. I am also aware that this is an uncommon stance to take.
However, given the historical context of this country we share, it was an inevitable occurrence. If not Lucas, it would have been someone else, somewhere else, at some other time. I am grateful for my complete lack of inhibitions that allowed me to side-eye a fellow classmate. I am grateful for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man whose dream I hope will one day come to full fruition.
And lastly, I am grateful for fires that burn bright.
Alexis Oni-Eseleh is a junior in the College and a staff writer for The Fourth Edition.