When I was five years old, my family moved back to the U.S. from an expatriate community overseas. In my pre-school and kindergarten overseas, I was used to playing with children of different races. But in my new "whitebread" community in the U.S., everyone in my kindergarten class was white except for one black girl named Tara.
I started in my new kindergarten in the middle of the year, but I had no problem making friends right away. I was a conventionally cute little white girl and my parents had met some of the other little girls' parents already. I fit in. But for some reason, Tara was an outcast. I vividly recall an incident my first week of school when I was sitting around a table with a group of girls, including Tara, over graham crackers and milk during snack time. The other girls were being horrible to Tara. At one point, Tara coughed and said, "Scuse me." The girls immediately pounced on her for being "so stupid." They asked her if she didn't know how to say "Excuse me" or if her mouth wasn't built so she couldn't say "Excuse me" properly. Later I asked one of my new little friends why they had been so mean to Tara, and my little friend explained nonchalantly that she was just "horrible" and "dirty."
When I described the incident to my mother, she set her jaw grimly and explained that the other girls didn't like Tara because she was black. I didn't believe her because it didn't make any sense. I was convinced that Tara must have done something terrible to warrant such treatment from the nice little girls who were my friends. Nonetheless, I followed my mother's instruction that I should be "extra nice" to Tara.
A couple of weeks later, I approached Tara and presented her with an invitation to my birthday party. I felt virtuous and kind, going out of my way to such an extent for a little girl no one liked. But Tara didn't take it that way. She yelled that she would never, ever go to my birthday party and that she hated me. ("I hate you! I hate you!") I was hurt, and completely baffled. I had never uttered an unkind word to Tara. Why on earth would she lash out at me like that? I quickly concluded that she must be just as terrible as everyone said she was. It, of course, never entered my mind that she associated me with her tormentors, who were all my friends, or that she perhaps resented the fact that I had never said a word to defend her.
Years later, after spending more time in happily integrated expatriate communities overseas, I returned to the U.S. again for boarding school. My boarding school actively recruited disadvantaged minority kids through the "A Better Chance" program. A lot of the white kids, mostly raised in privileged liberal circles, were as shocked and confused by what seemed like hostility from the minority kids as I had been by Tara's response to me.
And thus begins the stereotype of the "angry black man" or the "angry black woman." The stereotye hinges on the notion that black people are oversensitive, unreasonable, and quick to anger. The stereotype takes no account whatsoever of the possibility that the anger might be justified in some way. But, man oh man, put yourself in Tara's shoes, living a lifetime of constant berating and slights for no reason other than your race, starting in kindergarten (if not earlier) and what you have is not irrational anger -- it's righteous indignation.
Check out the rest of Blogging Against Racism day here at Chris Clarke's blog. Don't forget to look in the trackbacks of his post for all the other blog entries.