It was the summer of 1992, just after fourth grade. It was my 10th birthday. My mom, dad, and I cleaned and decorated our home. We were prepared for the five or six girls that had RSVP’d to say they were coming to my sleepover to celebrate with me.
We had only lived in our town for about a year, and I had not yet transferred to the local school, so the girls that I invited were either from my previous school, my old neighborhood, or from my dance school. The doorbell rang, and my first friend arrived. The doorbell rang again and then again and again and more and more girls just kept showing up—about 10 altogether.
Audrey, my friend from school, arrived and I was so happy that she could come. All of my other friends I invited from school went on vacations with their families and declined my invitation. I introduced her to the rest of my friends and put her sleeping bag on the floor next to everyone else’s. As Audrey was getting settled in with the group, I saw Audrey’s mom seeking a private conversation with my parents in the kitchen away from us in the living room.
After the sleepover had ended the next day, I found out what her mother had asked my parents: “Is Audrey going to be okay?”
“What do you mean?” my mother had replied.
“Well… Audrey… She doesn’t know anyone here. She’s the only white girl here.” said Audrey’s mom.
My mom explained to her that all of the other girls, who were white, decided not to come. She then followed up with a question.
“No one thinks twice about Stacy being one of the only Black girls in her class. How do you think she feels?”
At that moment, Audrey’s mom had to make a decision. Was she going to snatch her daughter away from the group of giggly brown girls and seem like a racist? Would she deprive her daughter from playing with a two-story Barbie house, laughing all night long, and eating some of the 30 pancakes my dad would make in the morning?
Audrey’s mom let her stay.
My mom challenged Audrey’s mom to think about race in a new way. We often talked about race in my home, because we were submersed in white culture every day at work and school. When we got home, we talked about the things we experienced as the “fly in the buttermilk,” as my great-grandmother called being the only Black person amongst white people. But it was the first time Audrey had been the only white person in a predominately Black environment.
‘No one thinks twice about Stacy being one of the only Black girls in her class. How do you think she feels?’
It was expected of me to know white culture: how to act, talk, and eat like white people. I had to know what kind of music they listen to and watch their movies. But this was not required of Audrey and her family. I had to live two different lives culturally. I spent the day with white people and went home to Black people. Audrey spent the day with white people and went home to white people.
Being one of the only Black people in my class meant that I was the ambassador for all things Black. I was asked if I could wash my hair, if it was real, and if my skin could tan in the summer’s sun.
Looking back now almost 30 years ago, I realize that not much has changed. I’ve worked in predominantly white professional settings and have been still asked the same questions about my Blackness that I was in elementary school. In certain spaces, I am still expected to know everything about white culture and to assimilate or code-switch in some environments. As an adult, I wonder if my classmates were not allowed to come to my sleepover because they feared letting their children spend the night in a culturally unfamiliar setting.
It can be challenging to be the only different person in any situation, here are some ways to navigate through your own discomfort and support your children’s friendships with kids from different backgrounds.
Develop authentic relationships with people who may not look like you
If all of your friends look the same and think the same, it’s probably time to expand your circle. We live in such a diverse country; when we are only hanging out with people who are just like us, it means we’re missing out on some great experiences.
Challenge yourself to initiate a friendship with someone of a different race or ethnicity. However, do not center the relationship around that person’s race. In fact, don’t bring up their race, unless they do first. Do not expect this person to be the expert on all things about his or her race. I am Black, but I cannot speak for all Black people because we have all had different experiences.
Treat others the way you want to be treated
This “golden rule” also applies to race and culture. Consider how you would want to be treated if the roles were reversed and you were the only white person in a place. Imagine how it would feel if a group of Black women asked you to touch your white skin and your hair and looked at you as if you were some exotic creature instead of their coworker or classmate. Also being polite, kind, and an active listener goes a long way.
Follow your child’s lead
Often, I think that children are wiser than adults. They don’t come with negative biases. They just want to have fun and feel loved—and offer a lot of love. Children are really good at making friends and finding things they have in common with each other. Adults are really good at highlighting our differences. We can all benefit from being more like children.
Going back to the summer of 1992, I applaud Audrey’s mom for going beyond her comfort zone and letting Audrey stay the night. The parents who made a different choice deprived their daughters of a really fun night. I applaud Audrey for wanting to stay at my house, playing with my friends who didn’t look like her and allowing herself to have fun. If we set aside our differences at 10-years-old, I’m sure that as adults we can do the same.