I grew up in an all-Black neighborhood and up until the fifth grade, went to an all-Black school. I feel blessed that, for the most part, school always came easily to me. Whether or not I always fully applied myself is another story for another day. As such, my teachers were constantly looking for ways to push me and to challenge my intellectual growth. As I prepared to enter the fifth grade, an accelerated program at another public school some ways from my neighborhood was brought to my parents’ attention. Given that I’ve also never been apprehensive about taking on new challenges, I was game.
This would be my first time experiencing what it was like to be a minority in a school environment. I had White teachers in my neighborhood school, but every single student in the school looked exactly like me. This was different. These students were mostly White and from what I could tell at that age, were from a socioeconomic status that was just as foreign to me as this newfound environment. While not brand new, the school had fresh paint, plenty of classroom supplies, kids’ parents were dropping them off in luxury brand cars (luxury to me, anyway), the kids wore designer clothing and the cafeteria food wasn’t half bad. And when I looked around my homeroom of about 20 students, I only saw one other student who looked like me. I remember thinking, “What the hell did I just sign up for?”
Even though my neighborhood was all Black, my parents instilled in us the wisdom to understand that people of different ethnicities may not always treat us well because of our skin color. They were persistent in articulating and demonstrating through the diversity of their personal friends, that we should never stereotype. I learned early on that you couldn’t lump every single person into one behavioral category. So with these culturally competent (or so I thought) life filters, I ventured into the new year with open eyes and an open mind. It didn’t take me long to make new friends, who I’m sure were just as curious about this new kid as I was to be in this foreign environment. I quickly learned to leverage our similarities as building blocks for our newfound friendships and to accept the ways we were, and maybe always would be, different. We liked many of the same television shows, some of the same music, the same kinds of clothes (although mine were of the inner city knock off variety, but I wore them well without a doubt) and many of the same foods (although our preference for levels of seasoning differed).
Some of the more stark differences came when it was time to do class projects that required our parents to purchase supplies. With a working class father and a paraprofessional mother, I could not (or didn’t dare) ask for money to invest in pre-cut stenciled letters and borders for posters, multi-colored paint palettes or trays of baked goods to share with the class. I distinctly remember an assignment to bring in a food item that represented some aspect of world culture. The teacher went around the room and my classmates eagerly volunteered their dishes. When it came to me, one of my mom’s specialties, pineapple upside down cake, immediately came to mind, so that’s what I offered up. One problem – it wasn’t like we always had money for pineapple upside down cake at home (which made it even more of a treat), so how the heck would my parents be able to afford a cake for a classroom full of somebody else’s children? I thought of every way I could to get out of school the day we were due to bring our dishes in. I had not asked my mother for money to bake or buy a cake and somehow or the other, it was never a problem that I didn’t bring one in. In hindsight, maybe my teacher intuitively knew it might be a problem and over-looked my failure to complete this assignment. I’ll never know, but I remember saying a thankful prayer that I wasn’t called out in front of my classmates. And so the school year went by, I made due as best I could and seemed to do more than okay with the grades.
As we got closer to the end of the year, plans were being made to have a class celebration at the home of one of my classmates. This would be yet another new experience for me. I had now interacted with White teachers, White classmates, but I had never been to a White person’s home! Their house wasn’t far from the school, so when the day of the end of year soiree came, I took the city bus to the school stop as usual and walked to their house. As I walked past the Volvo in the driveway, the meticulously manicured lawn and gardens and made my way up to the front porch, I starkly remember being able to literally hear my heartbeat as I had no idea what awaited me on the other side of my White classmate’s door. I rang the doorbell, was invited in and quickly noticed the full spread of snacks, sandwiches, meats, cheeses – okay, it’s all good in the hood! And then it hit me. Someone referred to one of the brightly colored drink-filled pitchers as being Kool-Aid. Mind blown! Wait, what – White people with Volvos drink Kool-Aid?
Now, keep in mind, I’m roughly ten years old at this time. My mind was clearly still developing so I hadn’t naturally made the connection to seeing White people in Kool-Aid commercials almost every single day. I guess my thought pattern was that Kool-Aid, like most of the other advertisers I saw on television, rarely put Black people in their commercials, even if the products were meant for “us.” But I didn’t know they actually drank it themselves. Why would they do that? Could they not afford big brand sodas like Pepsi and Coke? After all, that’s why most of us [Black people in my neighborhood] drank Kool-Aid. You could get something like 500 packs for $1 or something like that. Take it home, mix a couple of packets with a gallon of water and a half bag of sugar (my recipe) and you were in business. I assumed they didn’t have Kool-Aid at the house just for me because the other White kids didn’t act as if it was the first time they had tasted it. What was happening here?
As I mentioned before, it was no surprise to me that I shared SOME things in common with my White classmates, but Kool-Aid? I thought that was in the same “un-shareable ledger” as KY’s (aka chitlins), neck bones, Soul Train, Afro Sheen, pea shake houses, the bootleg meat truck – you get the point. But it clearly was not. Something I had identified as being uniquely Black turned out to be somewhat universal. Were there other things too?
Well, fast forward, let’s just say more than 30 years later and leave it at that. I recently posted a meme on Facebook about the quintessential Royal Dansk cookie tin that was a staple in my house and many of my other childhood friends’ homes in our neighborhood. So, once again, I’m thinking this was a “Black thing” and to my surprise, several of my White friends start “Liking” the post and commenting about their same experiences with this cookie tin. For those of you who may have never experienced “the tin”, I never actually remember getting any of the delicious looking cookies portrayed on the cover, but instead being somberly disappointed every time I went to open it only to find a mélange of sewing and mending equipment – needles, spools of thread, those thingies used to help get the thread through the needles, thimbles, etc. Now, I don’t know why each time I thought there would actually be cookies, but I never lost hope.
So here I am again, a person who practices that art and science of diversity management for a living. I intuitively know we all have more in common than our differences, but every now and then there still comes along a pleasant surprise that I hadn’t yet personally experienced that validates that fact. I love it when my perspectives are continually shaped and expanded through encounters with diverse friends, family, coworkers and communities. Especially when it involves something as prosaic as Kool-Aid and cookies. Bon appétit.