Your first mark?


I am a woman of color, and I was not aware of my race until someone else pointed out the ways I am different, sometime in my childhood.

The ways in which race/difference is pointed out, marks us for life.

I remember other children pointing to my eyes in daycare while in New York City; this means I was probably about 4 years old. “Why do you look that way?” they had asked, laughing. I had not realized I was in any way different from anyone else, and it did not even occur to me that I could be “lesser than” for being different.

I remember staring at myself in the mirror a lot, from then on.

My mom found me, she said, staring in the mirror with a stillness not typical of my 4 year old self. Noting a new tension or sadness or grief or questioning in my manner, she asked, “Why are you looking in the mirror?”

I replied with a question. “Why do I look like this, Mommy?”

She didn’t have to ask me to clarify. This was New York in 1977. Or maybe it was 1978. I can imagine that she took a deep but very quiet breath. Maybe she hesitated. She had to say something that wouldn’t scar me further or allow me to question myself. To this day, she’s proud of her answer; she replied, “Because you look like me.”

Was I satisfied with that answer? My mom said her answer broke the tension. (She also likes to clap her hands and say, “Wasn’t that answer so good?”) I can’t remember if I’m satisfied with that answer, but I’m sure it gave me some comfort; if I was different, then at least I had some company in the world.

But I was still different.

And it just dawns on me–that despite the fact that I don’t racialize my decision years ago to have had double eyelid surgery, it must be directly linked to this early childhood experience; that my eyes were linked to my awareness of race.

When was the first time you were marked?


Filed under Life, Race

7 responses to “Your first mark?

  1. Nate

    Ah, New Yorkers –blunt at any age!

    My first mark was at six, when I paid for my lunch with an orange ticket while the other kids just used money. Unfortunately, I didn’t need to ask anyone to know what it meant.

  2. In Spain, it was in first grade, when some other girls lined up their arms and they laughed at me because my skin was so pale and had freckles (because of my redheaded American mom).

    In the US, it was in fifth grade, when a boy in my class spat on me and told me to go back to my country (because of my slight Spanish accent and my Spanish dad).

    Now, I pretty much can “pass” in either context, but I still have the self-doubts those moments planted playing in my head.

  3. All the Japanese kids pointed and me and giggled when I worked in Japan (I was 19). They weren’t used to seeing people so tall and light-haired.

    Your story, by the way, makes me think of Po Bronson’s “Nurtureshock” and his chapter on race and how you SHOULD discuss race with your kids. Feels so odd, though, to say to my two-year-old, “So-in-so is black” or “So-in-so is Asian.” I’m hoping that growing up in Berkeley with friends of every color will help. And I’m dreading the day he points and asks me why someone is in a wheelchair or has some other disability. He sees adults with CP and autism at the Y and stares, but hasn’t said anything yet.

    • @Nate: Ugh. Yes. Branded by an orange ticket (what were the adults thinking?)

      @Violeta: That children learn so young to scapegoat anyone who is at all different is tragic.

      @Meghan: The marks happen anywhere in the world, don’t they? I was thinking about your comment about Po Bronson’s advice: I think I tend to agree. At first, I thought, “My parents didn’t discuss race with me”–but then realized they didn’t HAVE to discuss race, because it was flung in my face and I kept bringing it up with them. So if you’re in the dominant culture, you’d have to bring it up (and this isn’t only wrt race but to sexual identity and religion, etc., etc). As a child, I didn’t think twice when my parents said, “so and so is Jewish” but it was eye opening to realize there was more than one religion and then to learn about other religions. I think it’s not only helpful to point out identities of people, but to also supplement that with values people bring to society and how different does not equal lesser.

      • Nate


        OMFG, the horror! They used to announce our names over the intercom too, so that we would know to come to the office and pick up our tickets for the week! It was bad at the time, but more for that sense of shame. Now that I know the difference between being poor and not having any money, I actually feel like one of the lucky ones.

        Of course, being a WM American w/ striking (if I don’t say so myself) blue eyes I’ve had very little negative sentiment attached to my appearance/ethnicity/race at home or abroad. My features are almost always seen as desirable and/or a novelty by other cultures. The only places where things have been overwhelming negative have been in places where Americans are justifiably resented because of our past political activity. That resentment is certainly fair to what I am, but not necessarily who I am.


        Talking to kids about the differences they see everyday would seem to be the natural course of things. You fear it, but your son will certainly ask about those people at the Y someday and it will probably be a productive discussion. You never know what kids will see or how they will respond. As a kid, I can remember noticing that the black kid and I were EXACTLY the same color under our fingernails and then running home to tell my mom all about it!

        I could see kids that grow up in a monoculture could probably use structured, Po Bronson-style discussions –lest they get their info about different kinds of people from the entertainment/media world. Of course, the issue in areas of monoculture is finding competent, sensitive adults capable and willing to have that discussion.

  4. chaesq

    1st grade, age 5 = first time i heard the word, “chink;” first time i realized my last name could be used against me as a taunt; 2 years before i was sassy & learned enough to reply with “it’s GOOK, not CHINK, and you’re too dumb & blind to know the difference!” ’twas witty at the time . . .

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